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NASA Facts Stardust Mission to a Comet

NASA Facts Stardust Mission to a Comet

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Feb 17, 2011
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NASA’s Stardust mission is sending a spacecraftto fly through the cloud of dust that surrounds thenucleus of a comet – and, for the first time ever, col-lect cometary materialfor return to Earth.Comets, which peri-odically grace our skylike celestial bottle rock-ets, are thought to holdmany of the originalingredients of the recipethat created the planetsand brought plentifulwater to Earth.They are also rich incarbon-based material,which provided ourplanet with many of theready-to-mix moleculesthat could give rise tolife. They may be theoldest, most primitivebodies in the solar sys-tem, a preserved recordof the original nebulathat formed the Sun andthe planets.Stardust is the firstU.S. mission dedicatedsolely to a comet. Its main objective is to capture asample from a well-preserved comet called Wild 2(pronounced "Vilt 2").The spacecraft also collects interstellar dust froma recently discovered flow of particles that passesthrough our solar system from interstellar space. Asin the proverbial "from dust to dust," this interstellardust represents the ulti-mate in recycled mater-ial; it is the stuff fromwhich all solid objectsin the universe aremade, and the state towhich everything even-tually returns.Scientists want todiscover the composi-tion of this "stardust" todetermine the history,chemistry, physics andmineralogy of nature'smost fundamentalbuilding blocks.Because it would bevirtually impossible toequip a spacecraft withthe most sophisticatedlab instrumentationneeded to analyze suchmaterial in space, theStardust spacecraft willact as a robotic lab assistant whose job it is pick upand deliver a sample to scientists back on Earth. Thespacecraft will, however, radio back some on-the-spotanalytical observations of the comet and interstellardust.
Stardust Mission to a Comet
NASAFacts
National Aeronautics andSpace Administration
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
California Institute of TechnologyPasadena, CA91109
 
Mission Overview
Stardust was launched at 4:04 p.m. ESTFebruary7, 1999, atop a Delta II rocket from Florida's CapeCanaveral Air Station. Its flight path is taking it onseveral looping orbits around the Sun.From March through May 2000, Stardustopened a collector to catch samples of interstellar par-ticles. On January 15, 2001, the spacecraft flew byEarth to use the planet’s gravity to change the space-craft’s path, passing within 6,000 kilometers (3,700miles) of Earth’s surface at about 6:15 a.m. EST(3:15a.m. PST). The flyby put Stardust on a trajectory thatallowed the spacecraft to pass within 3,300 kilometers(2,050 miles) of asteroid Annefrank during theevening hours of November 1, 2003 (8:50 p.m. PST).Stardust’s mission planners made the most of thisencounter with the irregularly shaped, 8-kilometer (5-mile) diameter asteroid. They gave the spacecraft adeep space workout, thoroughly testing all the space-craft systems that they will employ three years later.On January 2, 2004, the spacecraft will encountercomet Wild-2, flying past it at a relative speed of 21,960 kilometers per hour (13,650 miles per hour).While in terrestrial terms such velocity is guaranteedto smoke any policeman’s radar gun, in cosmic termssuch relative speed between spacecraft and comet isrelatively benign, allowing Stardust to collect andstore its deep space cometary dust samples in a pris-tine a condition as possible.An onboard camera will aid in navigating thespacecraft to the comet's nucleus, permitting the cap-ture of the freshest samples from the heart of thecomet.Stardust will document its passage through thehailstorm of comet debris with scientific instrumentsand the navigation camera. On approach to the dustcloud, or “coma,” the spacecraft will flip open a ten-nis-racket-shaped particle catcher filled with a sili-con-based foam called aerogel to capture the cometparticles. Aerogel, the lowest-density material in theworld, has enough "give" in it to slow and stop parti-cles without altering them too much. After the sam-ple has been collected, the aerogel capturing devicewill fold down into a sample return capsule, whichcloses like a clamshell to enclose the samples for safe2
Comet Wild-2encounter
1/2/04
Earthorbit
Interstellar dustcollectionMarch-May 2000
Interstellarparticle streamComet Wild-2orbitLoop 1Loops2 & 3Launch
2/6/99
Earthgravityassist
1/15/01
Earthreturn
1/15/06Interstellar dustcollectionJuly-December 2002
 
delivery to Earth.Aparticle impact mass spectrometer will alsoobtain in-flight data on the composition of both cometand interstellar dust, especially very fine particles.The optical navigation camera should provide excel-lent images of the dark mass of the comet's nucleus.Other equipment will reveal the distribution in bothtime and space of coma dust, and could produce anestimate of the comet's mass.On January 15, 2006, a parachute will set the cap-sule gently onto the salt flats of the Utah desert forretrieval. The scientifically precious samples can bestudied for decades into the future with ever-improv-ing techniques and analysis technologies, limited onlyby the number of atoms and molecules of the samplematerial available. Many types of analyses now per-formed on lunar samples, for example, were not evenimagined at the time of the Apollo missions to theMoon.From Earth to comet to Earth over the course of seven years, the spacecraft will have traveled a totalof 5.2 billion kilometers (3.2 billion miles).
Comet Science
Comets are small, irregularly shaped bodies com-posed of a mixture of grains of rock, carbon-basedmolecules and frozen gases. Most comets are about50 percent water ice. Typically ranging in size up toabout 10 kilometers (6 miles) in diameter, cometshave highly elliptical orbits that bring them close tothe Sun and then swing them back out into deepspace. They spend most of their existences in a deepfreeze beyond the orbit of Pluto – far beyond theSun's dwindling influence, which is why so much of their original material is well-preserved.When a comet approaches within about 700 mil-lion kilometers (about a half billion miles) of the Sun,the surface of the nucleus begins to warm, and mater-ial on the comet's nucleus heats and begins to vapor-ize. This process, along with the loss of rocky debrisor other particles that fly off the surface, creates thecloud around the nucleus called the coma. It is theglowing, fuzzy-looking coma that appears as the headof a comet when one is observed from Earth. Atailof luminous debris and another, less apparent, tail of gases flow millions of miles beyond the head in thedirection away from the Sun.Comet Wild 2 is considered an ideal target forstudy because, until recently, it was a long-periodcomet that rarely ventured close to the Sun. Afatefulpass near Jupiter and its enormous gravity field in1974 pulled comet Wild 2 off-course, diverting it ontoa tighter orbit that brings it past the Sun more fre-quently and also closer to Earth's neighborhood.Because Wild 2 changed its orbit only recently, it haslost little of its original material when compared withother short-period comets, so it offers some of thebest-preserved comet samples that can be obtained.3
AerogelLaunch vehicleadapterWhippleshieldsComet and interstellardust analyzerSample returncapsuleSolar panelsHigh-gainantennaThruster module

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