NASA's Stardust: Good to the Last Drop
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Prior to this final burn, Stardust will point its medium-gain antenna at Earth - some 312 million kilometers (194 million miles) away. As there is no tomorrow for Stardust, the spacecraft is expected to downlink information on the burn as it happens. The command from the spacecraft computer ordering the rockets to fire will be sent for 45 minutes, but the burn is expected to last only between a couple of minutes to somewhat above 10 minutes. It is estimated the burn could accelerate the spacecraft anywhere from 2.5 to 35.2 meters per second (6 to 79 mph).
"What we think will happen is that when the fuel reaches a critically low level, gaseous helium will enter the thruster chambers," said Larson. "The resulting thrust will be less than 10 percent of what was expected. While Stardust will continue to command its rocket engines to fire until the pre-planned firing time of 45 minutes has elapsed, the burn is essentially over."
Twenty minutes after the engines run dry, the spacecraft's computer will command its transmitters off. They actively shut off their radios to preclude the remote chance that at some point down the road Stardust's transmitter could turn on and broadcast on a frequency being used by other operational spacecraft. Turning off the transmitter ensures that there will be no unintended radio interference in the future.
Without fuel to power the spacecraft's attitude control system, Stardust's solar panels will not remain pointed at the sun. When this occurs, the spacecraft's batteries are expected to drain of power and deplete within hours.
"When we take into account all the possibilities for how long the burn could be and then the possible post-burn trajectories, we project that over the next 100 years, Stardust will not get any closer than 1.7 million miles of Earth's orbit, or within 13 million miles of Mars orbit," said Larson. "That is far enough from protected targets to meet all of NASA's Planetary Protection directives. "
Some planetary spacecraft, like the Galileo mission to Jupiter, are intentionally sent into the planet's atmosphere to make sure it is destroyed in a controlled way. Others have their transmitters shut off or just fade away, said Larson. "I think this is a fitting end for Stardust. It's going down swinging."
Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission to expand the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Stardust-NExT project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C., and is part of the Discovery Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Joe Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is the mission's principal investigator.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.
Use this link to experience Stardust's final hour before decommissioning, then use Eyes on the Solar System to relieve the entire mission from 1999 to 2011: http://go.usa.gov/2ry. A free software download is required.
DC Agle 818-393-9011
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.