Back-Up Plan for Stardust Mission a Three-Year Detour

If the incoming Stardust spacecraft fails to deliver its capsule carrying a grab bag of interstellar and cometary goodies to Earth this weekend, scientists will have to wait several years before another attempt is possible.

As the spacecraft now speeds toward Earth at 4 miles per second, still ahead for mission engineers is a go/no-go capsule separation decision. Space engineers need to assure themselves that all is precisely on track for the capsule's deployment and skyrocketing descent into Utah.

After nearly seven years and 2.88 billion miles of space travel, the NASA Stardust mission is slated to drop off on January 15 its sample return capsule carrying interstellar dust and comet particles.

Three year wait

If the sample capsule is not ejected by the Stardust main spacecraft as it swings by Earth, Stardust and its still-retained capsule would be diverted to a course that permits both spacecraft and Earth to be back together again--but three years later. The capsule deployment would then be attempted.

"We do have a backup...but we expect to come in Sunday," said Tom Duxbury, Project Manager for Stardust at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California during a Stardust capsule pre-landing briefing today, held at a command conference room at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground.

Stardust's sample return capsule is headed for an early Sunday morning local time landing within the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, southwest of Salt Lake City.

Stardust's sample capsule is to blaze across the western United States as it plunges toward a UTTR target zone. The capsule should touch down January 15 at 3:12 a.m. Mountain Standard Time.

Light up the sky

"We will light up the sky," said Duxbury. The fireball itself could be visible up to 30 seconds during the capsule's high-speed, heat-shield protected plunge, he said.

The sky show is expected to be visible from central California through central Oregon, on through Nevada and into Utah, Duxbury said.

The return capsule "is our knight in shining armor," Duxbury added, wrapped in heat-thwarting material to take the heat generated during the speedy atmospheric dive. Tucked inside the capsule, a collector grid contains the precious cargo of interstellar and comet particles.

"We are nearing the end of quite a fantastic voyage," said Don Brownlee, Principal Investigator for Stardust at the University of Washington, Seattle. During the probe's collection route, Stardust snagged both interstellar dust specimens, as well as particles cast off comet Wild 2 when the probe flew by that object in 2004.

The primitive materials snared by Stardust will give scientists a glimpse back in time--4.5 billion years ago--to help learn more about the origin of our solar system, the Sun, as well as the origin of life, Brownlee said

Weather conditions

First, a drogue chute, followed by main parachute, will deploy with the capsule then softly touching down at 10 miles per hour on the desert floor.

The weather for landing looks favorable at the moment, said Michael McGee, Recovery Operations Manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, the firm that designed, built and has operated Stardust.

McGee said the recovery team has undergone numerous trial-runs and are ready to reach the landed capsule via helicopter or ground track vehicles--depending on weather conditions during the capsule's early morning touch down.

Coordinates of the capsule's actual landing spot will be yielded by radar and infrared tracking systems, McGee said.

"We're looking forward to going out and retrieving this Sunday...regardless of whatever the conditions may be and whatever is presented to us," McGee told reporters during the press briefing.

Getting to the finish line

The $212 million Stardust mission was launched on February 7, 1999. It is a NASA Discovery-class--space science on a budget--spacecraft.

Stardust mission scientists and engineers expect they won't see a replay of the Genesis smash-down that occurred September 8, 2004. Incorrectly placed gravity-switches caused the Genesis capsule parachute system not to deploy.

In the event that Stardust's sample return capsule undergoes a hard landing, "we have a smaller and more rugged return capsule than Genesis," Duxbury noted. The collector grid, he said, is very tough--a large tennis racket-looking device loaded with aerogel that holds the trapped interstellar and comet particles.

"Aerogel is a very robust material. We've tested it...pounded it into the ground at more than a few hundred g's and it survives fine," Duxbury explained. "Even with a hard landing, we believe we will recover most, if not all, of our science."

Duxbury said that landing "is not the finish line." The recovered Stardust samples are to be transported to, studied and distributed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, he said, "and that's where we will get the fruits of all of our labor."

  • Full Circle: NASA's Stardust Probe Returns Home with Comet Samples

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.