Stardust was the first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to the exploration of a comet, and the first robotic mission designed to return extraterrestrial material from outside the orbit of the Moon.
The Stardust spacecraft was launched on February 7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, aboard a Delta II rocket. The primary goal of the original Stardust was to collect dust and carbon-based samples during its closest encounter with Comet Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt 2" after the name of its Swiss discoverer)—a rendezvous scheduled to take place in January 2004, after nearly four years of space travel.
Additionally, the spacecraft would bring back samples of interstellar dust, including recently discovered dust streaming into our Solar System from the direction of Sagittarius.These materials are believed to consist of ancient pre-solar interstellar grains and nebular that include remnants from the formation of the Solar System. Analysis of such fascinating celestial specks is expected to yield important insights into the evolution of the Sun its planets and possibly even the origin of life itself.
In order to meet up with comet Wild 2, the spacecraft made three loops around the Sun. On the second loop, its trajectory intersected with the comet. During the encounter, Stardust performed a variety of tasks including reporting counts of comet particles encountered by the spacecraft with the Dust Flux Monitor, and real-time analyses of the compositions of these particles and volatiles taken by the Comet and Interstellar Dust Analyzer (CIDA). Using a unique substance called Aerogel, Stardust captured samples and stored them for safekeeping on its long journey back to Earth. On January 2006, in the early morning hours, Stardust’s 125 pound sample return capsule could be seen streaking across the sky as it parachuted into a selected landing site in Utah.
Stardust is the fourth NASA Discovery mission to be chosen and follows on the heels of Mars Pathfinder, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission, and the Lunar Prospector mission. The Discovery Program is an ongoing program that is intended to offer the scientific community opportunities to accomplish frequent, high quality scientific investigations using innovative and efficient management approaches. It seeks to keep performance high and expenses low by using new technologies and strict cost caps.
The Stardust mission was a collaborative effort between NASA, university and industry partners: