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Featured Scientist
  Tom Economou

Tom Economou, Co-Investigator of Stardust-NExT

What is your current role on the Stardust-NExT mission?
I am a Co-I and team lead for the Dust Flux Monitor Instrument ( DFMI).

Is this the first you've worked on a comet mission?
No, I also worked with DFMI on the Stardust mission. DFMI is one of the three payload instruments on the Stardust-NExT mission, the same payload instruments that were on the original Stardust mission. The DFMI performed well on Stardust, is remaining healthy and we expect that it will perform well during the next encounter of the Stardust-NExT spacecraft with Tempel
1 comet in 2011.

You've been working with spacecraft for a very long time, are you surprise?
I have been with Stardust spacecraft since it was launched on Feb 15, 1999. If I am surprised it is on pleasant side. The S/C performed like a charm during the entire period. It had a successful flyby in 2000 with Annfrank asteroid, remained healthy during the rest of the mission, had a successful encounter with Wild 2 comet on Jan. 2, 2004, successfully
returned collected cometary material back to earth on January 15, 2006 and is still amaizingly healthy  today with enough resources to complete the Stardust-NExT mission. We had some thermal problems with DFMI but we
managed overcome them and obtain significant dust flux information duringthe encounter with Wild 2 comet.

How long have you been interested in comets and why?
My interests on comets go back to 1990s when we proposed a dust instrument for the Stardust mission. We believe that comets are composed of primitive and unaltered matter from which our solar system was formed. In order to understand the origin and evolution of our solar system, we must study and collect as much information about them as possible. Dust is inseparable part of the comets and DFMI was  designed and constructed specifically to obtain the dust particle fluxes and  masses  of particles that escape from the nucleus of the comet during the perihelia.

What are your expectations for the Stardust-NExT mission and the science findings that come from it?
We hope to obtain similar information about the cometary dust particles that we had obtained during the encounter with Wild 2 comet. However, no two comets are the same and the more information we have from different comets, the more easily will be to understand the origin of the comets.

You are Greek, how did you come to be involved with NASA?
I came to the United States shortly after I finished my studies in1964 and immediately became a part of a group at the University of Chicago that NASA had just selected to design the first science instruments for theunmanned Surveyor Lunar missions in middle 1960s. In late 60’s wesuccessfully obtained for the first time  the chemical composition of the lunar material.  After that we continued with Mars, Saturn, comets, asteroids. My pride is the X-ray part of the Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer on the Mars Pathfinder mission  in 1997 that provided us with the first chemical analyses of the martian rocks.  As you can see, after 45 years I am still around and actively involved in three active space missions: MER, Cassini and Stardust-NExT.

Growing up did anyone inspire you?
The most influential persons in my career were the two high school teacher in math and physics.

What suggestions do you have for young people today wanting to do
what you do?

To study hard, to be dreamers and willing to sacrifice for the good of science. Follow the advice of your teachers.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
It is the novelty that comes with each new mission. It is the surprises from the unexpected discoveries. It is the excitement of meeting the unknown. It is all oh the above. You will never get bored on any of space missions.

What do you hope for the future of space exploration in general?
Well, space exploration will never stop and will go on forever, probably with different speeds, depending how rich society feels at different times, due to the fact that humans have an unsaturated appetite for knowledge and are very curious of what is up there. Besides, space explorations is a conduit for developing new technologies that are very beneficial for the society and  necessary for  the national economy, national defense  and national pride.

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“When we see comets up in the sky they're really spectacular. But unless you get close to a comet, you can't really figure out what's going on.”

-Joe Veverka