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Heading Into the Bonus Round – in Space

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Moving into the Bonus Round

In January 2007, from a stack of proposals with intriguing ideas, NASA chose Stardust-NExT (Stardust's Next Exploration of Tempel). It was a plan to revisit comet Tempel 1 at a tenth of the cost of a new, from-the-ground-up mission. Comet Tempel 1 was of particular interest to NASA. It had been the target of a previous NASA spacecraft visit in July 2005. That mission, Deep Impact, placed a copper-infused, 800-pound impactor on a collision course with the comet and observed the results from the cosmic fender-bender via the telescopic cameras onboard the larger part of Deep Impact, a "flyby" spacecraft observing from a safe distance.

"The plan for our encounter is to be more hospitable to comet Tempel 1 than our predecessor," said Joe Veverka, principal investigator of Stardust-NExT from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "We will come within about 200 kilometers [124 miles] of Tempel 1 and view the changes that took place over the past five-and-a-half years."

That period of time is significant for Tempel 1 -- it is the period of time it takes the comet to orbit the sun once. Not much happens during a comet's transit through the chilly reaches of the outer solar system. But when it nears perihelion (the point in its orbit that an object, such as a planet or a comet, is closest to the sun), things begin to sizzle.

"Comets can be very spectacular when they come close to the sun, but we still don't understand them as well as we should," said Veverka. "They are also messengers from the past. They tell us how the solar system was formed long ago, and Stardust-NExT will help us understand how much they have changed since their formation."

So the spacecraft that had traveled farther afield than any of its predecessors was being sent out again in the name of scientific opportunity. In between spacecraft and comet lay four-and-a-half years, over a billion kilometers (646 million miles), and more than a few hurdles along the way.

Your Mileage May Vary

"One of the challenges with reusing a spacecraft designed for a different prime mission is you don't get to start out with a full tank of gas," said Larson. "Just about every deep-space exploration spacecraft has a fuel supply customized to get the job done, with some held in reserve for contingency maneuvers and other uncertainties. Fortunately, the Stardust mission navigation team did a great job, the spacecraft operated extremely well, and there was an adequate amount of contingency fuel aboard after its prime mission to make this new comet flyby possible – but just barely."

Just how much fuel is in Stardust's tanks for its final act?

"We estimate we have a little under three percent of the fuel the mission launched with," said Larson. "It is an estimate, because no one has invented an entirely reliable fuel gauge for spacecraft. There are some excellent techniques with which we have made these estimates, but they are still estimates."

One of the ways mission planners can approximate fuel usage is to look at the history of the vehicle's flight and how many times and for how long its rocket motors have fired. When that was done for Stardust, the team found their spacecraft's attitude and translational thrusters had fired almost half-a-million times each over the past 12 years.

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