Spacecraft collects interstellar dust beyond Mars
The aerogel dust collector
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
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
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.
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
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,
"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
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.
Stardust spacecraft heads for comet rendezvous
February 8, 1999
Stardust spacecraft enters 'safe' mode; transmits first image from space
March 23, 1999
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