Roamy here. I wrote about the Deep Impact spacecraft last month here, and I mentioned that NASA was going back to Comet Tempel 1. This time, they are going back with what’s left of the Stardust spacecraft and calling it Stardust-NExT for New EXploration of Tempel 1. Stardust-NExT will rendezvous with Tempel 1 on Monday, Feb. 14th. The primary goal is to get good pictures of the crater created by Deep Impact in 2005.
Stardust was launched in 1999. It used aerogel to collect particles from Comet Wild 2 as well as interstellar dust. The tennis racket-looking thing at the top of the spacecraft with the aerogel then folded into the sample return capsule at the back of the spacecraft. Once Stardust came back to near Earth, the capsule was released, entered Earth’s atmosphere, and, after a 3 billion-mile journey that took nearly seven years, landed safely, right on target at the Utah Test and Training Range.
This was a huge relief, because in Sept. 2004, the Genesis sample return capsule, with the same shielding and parachute system design, um, lithobraked.
A sensor had been installed incorrectly on Genesis, so the chutes never deployed. A co-worker said that he was waiting for the Wile E. Coyote moment after the crash landing, for the chutes to pop up and gently float down over the wreckage.
Anyway, that did NOT happen with Stardust. There were two types of ablative insulation on the Stardust return capsule, so besides the science of comet and interstellar dust particles, we got some really good data on the heatshields. (Ablative means that the top layer of the heatshield burns away to dissipate heat. All of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned capsules used ablative heatshields, as opposed to the Space Shuttle tiles. One-time use, and you’d better make it thick enough.)
Stardust also took pictures of the asteroid Annefrank in 2002. Monday’s mission will help us understand the geology of comets and how they change after passing close to the sun. That’s a pretty good list of accomplishments for a 12-year-old spacecraft.