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[Mission Flight Plan | Encounter with Comet Wild 2 | Data Collection | Drop Test | Earth Return]


STARDUST encounter with Wild 2

The goal of the Stardust mission is to return both particle samples from Comet Wild 2 and from interstellar dust. By returning these samples to Earth for analysis a great deal is expected to be learned about the composition of the building blocks of the early solar system and our neighboring local stellar medium.

A time-of-flight mass spectrometer, derived from instruments flown on the Giotto and Vega Halley missions, a dust flux monitor, an optical navigation CCD camera and radio science are included in the payload. These additional payloads will provide complementary and corroborative context to the samples returned.

For the Comet Wild 2 encounter, the principle objective is to recover more than one thousand particles larger than 15 microns in diameter in the aerogel capture medium. The sample return objective for contemporary interstellar grains is to provide at least 150 days of exposure to the interstellar dust stream. These will be captured in continuous variable density silica aerogel intact to preserve, at a minimum, the elemental, chemical and isotopic composition and morphology of individual submicron size particles.

An orbital design using one Earth gravity assist allows STARDUST to capture cometary dust intact at a low relative speed of 6.1 km/s (as a comparison, Giotto encounter Comet Halley at a relative speed more than 10 times higher). With the aid of onboard optical navigation, the flyby will take place at an encounter distance as close as a 300 kilometers from the comet's nucleus. This extraordinary trajectory imposed a very low post-launch fuel requirement and enabled launch by a Med-Lite version of the Delta II launch vehicle.

Mission Schedule in Brief

+ Launch - February 1999
+ Earth Gravity Assist - January 2001
+ Asteroid Annefrank Encounter - November 2002
+ Comet Wild 2 Encounter - January 2004
+ Earth Return - January 2006

The STARDUST spacecraft was launched on February 7, 1999. The first orbital loop was a 2-year path with a 160 m/s delta-V trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) near aphelion. This delta-V set up the Earth swingby that pumped the orbit up to the 2.5-year loop, which the spacecraft flew by twice. At 198 days before encounter, a delta-V of 71 m/s was performed to set up the Comet Wild 2 flyby. This will occur on 2 Jan 2004, at 1.86 AU and 98.5 days past Wild 2 perihelion passage. A 1 AU (Astronomical Unit) test was performed during June-July 2003 to assess the spacecraft performance for Earth return enviroment. The spacecraft will approach the comet at 6.1 km/s from sunside with a 73 phase angle. Coma fly-through will be on the sun side at a planned miss distance of 300 kilometers. Flyby is five years after launch, and Earth return, two years later.

Altogether, three orbits will be made around the sun to minimize the delta-V requirements for the mission so that a Med-Lite version of the Delta II launch vehicle could be utilized. Also, the three orbits will maximize the time for favorable collection of interstellar dust.

Launch Ascent Profile


The STARDUST spacecraft was launched aboard a Med-Lite version of the Delta II launch vehicle. At about 10 minutes after launch the spacecraft reached an altitude of 100 nautical miles and was 100 nautical miles down range.

Upper Stage Launch Ascent Profile


At about 21 minutes after launch the second stage restarted. Following separation at about 24 minutes into the flight the third stage ignited and burned for about 2 minutes after which the third stage separated and the spacecraft commenced its cruise for the Earth swingby.


STARDUST's seven-year, three-loop, EGA (Earth gravity assist) trajectory was designed (1) to fly by Wild 2 at a low velocity while it is active, (2) to maximize the time for favorable collection of interstellar dust, (3) to minimize the C3 (escape energy from Earth) and delta V requirements for the mission so that a smaller launch vehicle could be used, and (4) to have a low velocity relative to Earth upon return.

+ Full Screen View of the Complete Flight Plan

Trajectory Loop 1 


Trajectory Loop 2


Trajectory Loop 3


+ Where is Wild 2 Now?



+ Acronyms

[Mission Flight Plan | Encounter with Comet Wild 2 | Data Collection | Drop Test | Earth Return]

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