NASA Stardust Mission Ends after 12 Years

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After more than a decade in space, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, designed to collect and return particles from a comet to Earth, ceased operations at 7:33 p.m. EDT March 24, the agency announced March 25.

Launched Feb. 7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., the Lockheed Martin-built Stardust spacecraft was the first U.S. mission dedicated to exploring a comet and the first robotic explorer designed to return sample material from beyond the orbit of the Moon, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which managed the mission. NASA’s fourth Discovery-class mission, Stardust flew past the asteroid Annefrank and halfway to Jupiter to collect samples from the comet Wild 2. The spacecraft returned to Earth’s vicinity in January 2006 to jettison a 57-kilogram canister containing the celestial specks to a landing site southwest of Salt Lake City.

NASA then extended the mission and redesignated the spacecraft Stardust-NExT to perform a fly-by past the comet Tempel 1, where it snapped images of a crater blasted into the comet’s surface during the Deep Impact mission in 2005.

Stardust-NExT completed its extended mission in February. By comparing Stardust-NExT’s images of the Tempel 1 impact with those taken six years earlier, space scientists will gain a better understanding of how comets change with each pass of the sun.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory-based Stardust team performed the spacecraft’s final maneuver from the Stardust-NExT mission control area at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. The operation involved firing Stardust’s rockets until no fuel remained in the tank or fuel lines. After traveling some 5.7 billion kilometers, the spacecraft sent acknowledgment of its last command from approximately 310 million kilometers away in space.

“This is the end of the spacecraft’s operations, but really just the beginnings of what this spacecraft’s accomplishments will give to planetary science,” Lindley Johnson, Stardust-NExT and Discovery program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a March 25 agency news release. “The treasure-trove of science data and engineering information collected and returned by Stardust is invaluable for planning future deep space planetary missions.”