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Spacecraft collects interstellar dust beyond Mars

Image
The aerogel dust collector  

February 22, 2000
Web posted at: 6:38 PM EST

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- A spacecraft on the first mission to collect material from beyond the moon and return began collecting interstellar dust on Tuesday, according to project managers.

Known as Stardust, the refrigerator-sized ship is one year into a seven-year journey and already outside the orbit of Mars. Scientists hope the small craft helps solve big mysteries related to the origins of the universe.

Stardust is also the first unmanned NASA craft dispatched on an extraterrestrial pickup and delivery mission. The last time the agency collected and returned samples from outer space was in 1972 with Apollo 17, the final manned lunar landing.

Engineers with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, sent radio commands on Tuesday directing the spacecraft to deploy its dust collector, said Thomas Druxbury, a JPL scientist and chief pilot for Stardust.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

The commands, traveling at the speed of light, take almost 30 minutes to reach Stardust. The spacecraft beamed a message back confirming that all went well.

"Everything went by the book today. All the commands got up and were implemented right after each other along the timeline that we anticipated," Druxbury said.

Image
Artist's depiction of Stardust  

The collector resembles a waffle iron and contains a transparent, ultralight glass foam called aerogel. Similar substances were used on orbiting shuttles and Mir to collect space materials.

The craft is flying near the main asteroid belt in an area with a thin current of dust that originated outside the solar system, Druxbury said. Stardust's collector, little larger than 1 foot by 1 foot (30 cm by 30 cm), is expected to retrieve fewer than 100 of the swift interstellar particles, he said.

"If we had (a collector the size of) the space shuttle we would get a million," Druxbury said.

Thimble of comet dust more than enough

One side of the collector will catch interstellar dust for the next two months and again for two months in 2002.

The other side of the collector is designed to gather tiny particles from Comet Wild-2 when Stardust passes within 90 miles (170 kilometers) of the ancient ice ball in 2004.

Possibly the oldest bodies in the solar system, comets could contain a record of the original material that formed the sun and planets 4.5 billion years ago.

By studying what Stardust returns, scientists think they could learn if comets provided the water and organic material necessary to form life.

In January 2006, Stardust is scheduled to swing by Earth and release its sample capsule, which will parachute into a military base near Salt Lake City, Utah.

Even less than a thimble full of dust from the 2.5-mile (4-km) wide comet would be enough for the kind of detailed analysis that scientists plan, according to mission researchers.

Stardust was launched aboard a Boeing Delta rocket on February 7, 1999. The $200 million mission is first from the United States devoted solely to a comet. NASA plans several more in the first half of this decade.



RELATED STORIES:
Stardust spacecraft heads for comet rendezvous
February 8, 1999
Stardust spacecraft enters 'safe' mode; transmits first image from space
March 23, 1999

RELATED SITES:
STARDUST Home Page

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