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Stardust in a Wild Crowd

Mary Kohlmiller


“It is clear that the camera worked well and we should ultimately have about 70 images of the cometary nucleus.” — Dr. Scott Sandford



On February 7, 1999, a Delta II rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Station was launched with the purpose of becoming the first-ever spacecraft sent to bring a comet sample back to earth. The most critical phase of this mission was realized on January 2, 2004 when NASA's Stardust space craft successfully navigated through a hazardous environment of gas and particles in a coma around the comet Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt 2"). Flying within 240 kilometers (149 miles) of the comet, passive aerogel collectors trapped samples of the coma and interstellar dust. Detailed pictures were also taken of the comet's surface.

Dr. Scott Sandford from the Astrophysics Branch of the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field spoke to SJAA last June about the Stardust Mission. We contacted him following this successful phase of the program for his comments.

"We are still trying to sort through our data and determine what we have. It is clear that the camera worked well and we should ultimately have about 70 images of the cometary nucleus. The best images should have resolutions of about 30 meters per pixel. The acoustic dust flux monitor confirms that we ran into dust grains in the coma and suggests that our collector probably gathered in about 500 particles larger than 15 microns in size, so our primary science goal is well in hand. I am still waiting to see how the mass spectrometer (CIDA) performed.

"Some of the dust flux monitor data and spacecraft engineering data suggest that the spacecraft took a bit of a pounding on its way through the coma, but all indications are that the Whipple shields in the front of the spacecraft successfully protected everything.

"Now we can stop biting our knuckles for the comet encounter and start biting our knuckles for the Earth return..." NASA's Stardust spacecraft begins its 2 year, 1.14 billion kilometer (708 million mile) trip back to Earth with a landing scheduled for January 15, 2006. Analysis of the samples could reveal much about comets and the history of the solar system.

More information on the Stardust mission is available at


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