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Heading Into the Bonus Round – in Space

February 9, 2011 - PASADENA, Calif. -- A bonus round is something one usually associates with the likes of a TV game show, not a pioneering deep space mission. "We are definitely in the bonus round," said Stardust-NExT Project Manager Tim Larson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This spacecraft has already flown by an asteroid and a comet, returned comet dust samples to Earth, and now has almost doubled its originally planned mission life. Now it is poised to perform one more comet flyby."

  Artist's concept of NASA's Stardust-NExT mission
  Artist's concept of NASA's Stardust-NExT mission, which will fly by comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14, 2011. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS

A Successful Prime Mission

NASA's Stardust spacecraft was launched on Feb. 7, 1999, on a mission that would explore a comet as no previous mission had. Before Stardust, seven spacecraft from NASA, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency had visited comets – they had flight profiles that allowed them to perform brief encounters, collecting data and sometimes images of the nuclei during the flyby.

Like those comet hunters before it, Stardust was tasked to pass closely by a comet, collecting data and snapping images. It also had the ability to come home again, carrying with it an out-of -this-world gift for cometary scientists – particles of the comet itself. Along the way, the telephone booth-sized comet hunter racked up numerous milestones and more than a few "space firsts."

In the first round of its prime mission, Stardust performed observations of asteroid Annefrank, only the sixth asteroid in history to be imaged close up. After that, Stardust racked up more points of space exploration firsts. It became the first spacecraft to capture particles of interstellar dust for Earth return. It was first to fly past a comet and collect data and particles of comet dust (hurtling past it at almost four miles per second) for later analysis. Then, it was first to make the trip back to Earth after traveling beyond the orbit of Mars (a two-year trip of 1.2 billion kilometers, or 752 million miles). When Stardust dropped off its sample return capsule from comet Wild 2, the capsule became the fastest human-made object to enter Earth's atmosphere. The mission was also the first to provide a capsule containing cometary dust specimens, speciments that will have scientists uncovering secrets of comets for years to come.

With such a high tally of "firsts" on its scoreboard, you'd think Stardust could receive a few parting gifts and leave the game. And an important part of the original spacecraft is currently enjoying retirement – albeit a high-profile one: Stardust's 100-pound sample return capsule is on display in the main hall (Milestones of Flight) of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. But the rest of NASA's most-seasoned comet hunter is still up there – and there is work still to be done.

"We placed Stardust in a parking orbit that would carry it back by Earth in a couple of years, and then asked the science community for proposals on what could be done with a spacecraft that had a lot of zeros on its odometer, but also had some fuel and good miles left in it," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

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