Recalling NASA’s triumphant recovery of cosmic dust


The article discusses NASA’s Stardust mission, which involved the spacecraft travelling 2.88 billion miles, visiting an asteroid, getting blasted by a comet, and then returning to Earth at an unprecedented speed. The Stardust spacecraft, now on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery, gathered over 10,000 micron-sized grains from a comet that had remained relatively unchanged for 4.5 billion years.

The Stardust mission was a departure from traditional exploration techniques, with the emphasis on bringing samples from space back to Earth for analysis, rather than sending expensive instruments to the target. The mission, costing $199.6 million, began in 1980 and was greenlit by NASA in 1995. The main target of the mission was Comet Wild-2, which had its solar orbit altered from 43 years to six years due to a close encounter with Jupiter.

The spacecraft was equipped with eight hydrazine thrusters, five science instruments, and two solar arrays to protect it from cometary dust. It also housed a sample collector filled with aerogel, a highly resistant silicon dioxide foam. The Stardust spacecraft was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in February 1999 and returned to Earth in 2006.

Apart from Comet Wild-2, the spacecraft also visited the asteroid 5535 Annefrank, which was larger than predicted and displayed multiple impact fractures. The Stardust’s sample collector was retracted after the encounter with Comet Wild-2 and was brought back to Earth.

Upon reentry, the spacecraft had to withstand high speeds and temperatures, finally landing in Utah. The sample-return capsule was found to contain thousands of cometary particles, interstellar dust from outside the solar system, and a range of organic compounds, including glycine, an amino acid and a key building block for life.

After the Stardust mission, NASA approved the New Exploration of Tempel-1 (NExT), which used the Stardust spacecraft to re-examine Comet Tempel-1. The spacecraft provided extensive photography of the comet’s nucleus. However, the Stardust spacecraft fell silent in March 2011 due to low fuel.

Other successful missions following Stardust included NASA’s Genesis probe, Japan’s two Hayabusa missions, and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx. Future missions include Japan’s plan to collect soil from Mars’ moon Phobos in 2026, and NASA’s Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, planned for the 2030s.



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