Lunar and Planetary Institute
Lunar and Planetary Institute


Stardust Stars on Earth as it Does in the Heavens

April 4, 2008
Source:  Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Artist’s rendering of the Stardust spacecraft.While their spacecraft’s journeys may have taken it more than halfway to Jupiter, members of the Stardust team have lately been doing some roaming of their own. A great deal of the traveling has been to accept awards and receive the accolades of their aerospace and science-oriented peers. Among the honors the Stardust team has received:  the Aviation Week & Space Technology Program Excellence Award; the Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Award; and the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement. Now, Stardust can add above its mantle the National Air and Space Museum Trophy Award.

“We feel a little like Tiger Woods,” said Tom Duxbury, Stardust’s project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It is great for the team to receive such recognition for our accomplishments, but we understand that significant challenges lie ahead that will take our dedicated attention and focus.”

What is behind Stardust — and made them so honorable — is nine years of deep space travel, two Earth flybys, one close flyby of a comet’s nucleus, one record-setting high-speed return to Earth of samples from said comet, and literally dozens of groundbreaking scientific papers based on those samples. What lies ahead for Stardust and its team is a new challenge — a new comet.

“Stardust came through its historic comet Wild 2 flyby and Earth sample return with resources to spare,” said Duxbury. “NASA took a look at what was left in the tanks — of both spacecraft and personnel — and decided Stardust should head on out to explore another comet, Tempel 1.”

You could say comet Temple 1 is the temple of high-velocity deep space exploration. On July 4, 2005, an impactor deployed by another NASA spacecraft — Deep Impact — was run over by comet Tempel 1 at about six miles a second. Like Stardust, Deep Impact provided great strides for cometary science. Now the plan is for the Stardust spacecraft to revisit the site of Deep Impact’s triumph. Called Stardust-NExT, the mission will employ the Stardust spacecraft’s camera, cometary dust analyzer, and dust flux monitor during a Feb. 2011 flyby of Tempel 1, where it will observe changes to the surface of the comet since the Deep Impact mission’s visit in 2005.

“Tempel 1 made its closest approach to the Sun on July 5, 2005, a day after Deep Impact’s visit,” said Joe Veverka, a scientist at Cornell University and the principal investigator of Stardust-NExT. “Things happen to comets when they get closest to the Sun and Stardust-NExT is our first opportunity to observe these changes firsthand.”

While comet Tempel 1 is the future of Stardust science, comet Wild 2 is the not-so-distant past and a big reason for the Smithsonian Trophy. A lot has happened since Stardust’s sample return capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere in the early morning of Jan. 15, 2006, at a record speed of 28,860 miles per hour.

“The samples that Stardust returned to Earth are helping rewrite the very history of our solar system,” said Don Brownlee, a scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the Stardust mission’s principal investigator. “The samples have been distributed to researchers around the world and their findings are just beginning to come in.”

Among the discoveries garnered by Stardust was the finding that comets are a very odd mix of materials that formed at the highest and lowest temperatures that existed in the early solar system. Comets have been cold for billions of years, but their ingredients are remarkable products of both fire and ice. Because the rocky materials in comet Wild 2 formed at such high temperatures, scientists believe that they formed in the hot inner regions of the young solar system and were then transported all the way to beyond the orbit of Neptune.

“Comet Wild 2 is a collection of materials that probably came from all regions of the young solar system and thus it has turned out to be a wonderful ‘time capsule,’ said Brownlee. “The instruments and techniques used to study our samples have already greatly improved since we began looking at them in 2006, so the original Stardust mission and its discoveries should continue for years to come.”

For more information, visit

Stardust:  NASA’s Comet Sample Return Mission


Community News home page