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NASA's Stardust mission develops case of blurry vision

Artist's concept of Stardust  

(CNN) -- Mission controllers plan to give a comet-hunting spacecraft an eye exam Tuesday, making it stare at the stars in an effort to troubleshoot a case of blurry vision.

If the camera aboard the Stardust remains foggy, the NASA probe should still perform its primary task, collecting and returning samples from the tail of a comet, but it may have trouble taking pictures of the comet nucleus, project scientists said.

Engineers first detected a mysterious substance on the camera's optics several months ago. They turned on a probe heater in an attempt to clear the debris, raising the temperature from a frosty -35 C (-31 F) to a toasty 8 C (47 F).

Stardust took pictures of a small calibration lamp in front of the lens to test its vision during the weeklong roast. The images, beamed to Earth last week, showed that the refrigerator-sized ship still suffered from fuzzy vision, although the blurring changed from image to image as the temperature progressed.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

Engineers in charge of the $200 million mission, the first dedicated to studying a comet, hope to find out exactly much how the vision has changed by pointing the camera at the stars.

Managers will study the new images when they arrive in late September and come up with a prescription, which could include more induced fevers.

Stardust managers would use heaters to raise the temperature of one or more optical surfaces possibly coated with the goo. One is out of reach of the craft's heaters but direct sunlight could do the trick, said the project manager.

"We believe we can boil this off with heat," Thomas Duxbury said. "I don't feel overly confident that we will make it perfect again. I have some confidence that we will improve it."

Although the nature of the optic gunk remains unknown, project managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory suspect volatile materials coming from the spacecraft after it departed Earth in February 1999.

"Since the camera was the coldest part of the spacecraft shortly after launch, it would tend to act almost like flypaper," said mission engineers in a September 6 status report.

In 2006, Stardust is scheduled to become the first spacecraft to return to Earth with material from beyond the moon. It is expected to deliver microscopic samples from Comet Wild-2, which it will swoop near in 2004, as well as interstellar particles captured near the asteroid belt.



RELATED STORIES:
Stardust spacecraft enters 'safe' mode; transmits first image from space
March 23, 1999
Stardust spacecraft heads for comet rendezvous
February 8, 1999
NASA aiming for Sunday launch of Stardust
February 6, 1999
NASA headed for crisis, safety panel warns
February 5, 1999

RELATED SITE:
NASA
STARDUST
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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