our tax dollars are spent on a lot of questionable things, many of them stupid (e.g., the multi-billion dollar missile defense system that will never, ever, ever work).

and then there is the incredible work that NASA is doing. tax dollars spent to understand the universe and to invigorate our sense of wonder.

i’m not talking about the Mars rover mission. don’t get me wrong – it’s about as cool as space missions get, but for some reason, it didn’t push my geek buttons in the same way that Stardust did.

Stardust is a tiny robot whose incredible mission is to capture the dust from a comet and bring it home to earth. if Mars rover is the big, popular kid who gets all the attention, Stardust is his scrappy, determined little brother.

comet wild 2

the surface of comet Wild 2, as captured by stardust

the mission of the little robot-spacecraft-that-could reads like a science fiction story; it captures my imagination and makes me feel like a kid again.

mission synopsis or sci-fi story?
a tiny probe is shot from the earth in Feburary 1999. its mission is simple – go collect the stuff of stars, the dust being ejected from the surface of comet Wild 2; bring home samples. about 1/1000th of an ounce will do, provided the captured dust particles are unharmed.

in the course of its mission, stardust will fly a total of 3 billion miles. it hurls around the sun twice in elliptical orbits, at an average speed of 48,000 mph. at its furthest point from the sun (aphelion), 253 million miles distant, it is farther away than any solar-powered object we have ever created.

after reaching aphelion, it flies around the sun again, finds its way to comet Wild 2, and then passes through the comet’s dust cloud (coma). during its 13,000 mph close encounter, it extends a tennis-racket-shaped collection grid filled with aerogel, a substance almost indistinguishable from air. the dust particles slam into the grid at 3.8 miles per second, but this cosmic catcher’s mitt slows them down in a microsecond and leaves them undamaged. it cradles them in a delicate web of silicate networks, protection for the journey home.

the return capsule must fly another 1.14 billion miles to get home. it must survive a descent through earth’s atmosphere; during its 28,000 mph re-entry, parachute snap, and landing, it will experience loads up to 100 times the force due to gravity (a human being would black out at about 5g’s). on its final descent, it is traveling faster than the Apollo space capsules and 70% faster than the space shuttle on re-entry.

it will finally come to rest in the Utah desert on Sunday, January 26, 2006 at 2:45am. its precious cargo, 1/1000th of an ounce of cosmic dust, will help unlock the secrets of comets and the shrouded early history of our solar system.

aerogel – the coolest stuff there is
the collection grid used to capture cosmic dust is filled with aerogel, a substance closer to air than anything else. NASA’s stardust web site is full of photos like the one below.


aerogel is 99.8% air, yet it can support a brick, stand up to scorching flames, and safely capture cosmic dust traveling 13,000 mph

a high-speed flyby
the animated sequence below is what stardust captured when it flew past Wild 2. we’ve become so jaded to images from space; my sense of amazement and wonder came back after reading the story of the little robot that took these pictures, and the billions of miles it traveled to get them.

fly-by at 13000 mph

what stardust experienced as it flew through wild 2′s dust and gas cloud

cool facts
the number of cool facts about the stardust mission fills an entire page. i was ooh-ing and aah-ing and wow-ing through all of them…here are a few Stardust highlights:

  • It is the first U.S. mission launched to robotically obtain samples in deep space and return them to Earth.
  • It is the first U.S. mission designed to return samples from another body since the Apollo missions to the moon.
  • It is the first NASA mission dedicated to exploring a comet.
  • Scientists hope to collect more than 100 particles from a newly discovered beam of particles streaming into our Solar System from other stars in outer space.
  • Comet Wild 2, the destination of Stardust, almost collided with Jupiter in 1974, causing its orbit to be deflected closer to the Sun.
  • By circling back to swing by Earth to get a gravitational slingshot out to the comet, Stardust uses a smaller rocket. This saves over 8 million dollars.

in the gutter, looking up at the stars
i felt like a kid again reading and seeing the hyperreal story of Stardust. it seems that much news in the world today beats us into depression or apathy or anger or sadness. why no t have incredible stories like that of Stardust front and center, right next to the ones about war and suffering and insanity? maybe more people would look up at the stars and remember that we all share them.

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