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Stardust Mission to Asteroids Stardust Mission to Comets

Goals: Stardust was originally designed to capture comet dust and pre-solar interstellar materials in a special collector grid and return them safely to Earth. After its successful encounter with comet Wild 2, the spacecraft was retargeted as part of a Mission of Opportunity to study comet Tempel 1 -- the Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) mission.

Accomplishments: On 2 January 2004, Stardust flew within 236 km of comet Wild 2 and captured thousands of particles in its aerogel collector. It then returned those samples to Earth inside an Apollo-like capsule in January 2006 -- the first collection of extraterrestrial samples from beyond the orbit of the Moon. The samples, primordial material from a cometary nucleus, unchanged since the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, produced a wealth of scientific data. The mission revealed comets were more complex than previously thought and carried with them the basic building blocks of life.

NASA retasked the spacecraft to perform a bonus mission to fly past comet Tempel 1 to collect images and other scientific data. Stardust traveled about 21 million km (13 million miles) in its journey about the sun in the weeks following the comet Tempel 1 flyby, making the grand total from launch to its final rocket burn about 5.69 billion km (3.54 billion miles).

The spacecraft also made a close flyby of asteroid Annefrank. Stardust's encounter with asteroid Annefrank was used as a dress rehearsal to prepare for its primary mission to study comet Wild 2. The spacecraft made its final transmission to Earth on 24 March 2011.


Key Dates
7 Feb 1999:  Launch (21:04:15 UT)
2 Jan 2004:  Comet Wild 2 Encounter
15 Jan 2006:  Earth Sample Return
14 Feb 2011:  Comet Tempel-1 Flyby
Status: Successful
Fast Facts
Stardust Facts Stardust is the first mission to return samples from a comet.

Aerogel (right), the material used to capture comet samples, has been certified by Guinness World Records as the world's lightest solid.

Aerogel is made of the same basic material as glass, but it is much lighter because it is 99.8 percent air.

Scientists discovered glycine, a fundamental building block of life, in samples of comet Wild 2 returned by the Stardust spacecraft.

The particles were traveling at about 6 km per second -- six times the speed of a bullet -- when they were captured by Stardust's sample collector.
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Last Updated: 2 Dec 2014