12 January 2006

Almost Home!

Stardust, NASA's first cometary sample return mission, is hurtling back toward Earth and will arrive this coming Sunday. As I wrote previously, this mission is particularly exciting.

For a recap, check out this neat little flash animation courtesy of NASA.

Image Credit: NASA

NASA's Stardust mission return capsule will land Sunday, Jan. 15, at approximately 5:12 a.m. Eastern time on the Utah Test and Training Range. Stardust is completing a 2.88 billion mile round-trip odyssey to capture and return cometary and interstellar dust particles to Earth.

The spacecraft performs its last maneuver to put it on the correct path?to enter Earth's atmosphere on Friday, Jan. 13, at 8:53 p.m. Pacific time (9:53 p.m. Mountain time). The speed of the sample return capsule as it enters Earth's atmosphere at 46,440 kilometers per hour (28,860 miles per hour) will be the greatest of any human-made object on record. The previous record was set in May 1969 by the returning Apollo 10 command module.

The capsule will release a parachute at approximately 32 kilometers (105,000 feet) and descend to the salt flats. Weather permitting, it will be recovered by helicopter teams and taken to a cleanroom at the Michael Army Air Field, Dugway Proving Ground, for initial processing.

Stardust's current view of Earth

Stardust launched on Feb. 7, 1999, and encountered comet Wild 2 on Jan. 2, 2004. It flew less than 241 kilometers (150 miles) from the comet's nucleus to capture tiny grains of dust. During the voyage, the spacecraft captured bits of interstellar dust streaming into the solar system from other parts of the galaxy. Scientists believe these precious samples will help provide answers to fundamental questions about comets and the origins of the solar system.

NASA TV coverage of the landing starts Sunday at 1:30 a.m. Pacific time (2:30 a.m. Mountain time) on the Public (101), Education (102) and Media (103) channels. NASA TV is available on an MPEG-2 digital C-band signal accessed via satellite AMC-6, at 72 degrees west longitude, transponder 17C, 4040 MHz, vertical polarization. In Alaska and Hawaii, it's available on AMC-7 at 137 degrees west longitude, transponder 18C, at 4060 MHz, horizontal polarization. For NASA TV information and schedules on the Web, visit http://www.nasa.gov/ntv .

The last few hours of the Stardust mission will be filled with significant milestones. On Jan. 14 at 11:23 pm EST mission controllers will command the spacecraft to begin the computer-controlled sequence that will release the sample return capsule. On Jan. 15 at 12:56 am EST the Stardust spacecraft will complete the sequence by severing the umbilical cables between spacecraft and capsule. One minute later, springs aboard the spacecraft will literally push the capsule away. Fifteen minutes after release - while the sample return capsule continues its trajectory towards the Utah Test and Training Range, the Stardust spacecraft will perform a maneuver to place it in orbit around the Sun.

At 4:57 am EST, four hours after being released by the Stardust spacecraft, the capsule will enter Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 125 kilometers (410,000 feet) over Northern Calif. At this point it will be 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) east of the coast and 22 kilometers (13.67 miles) south of the Oregon-California border. The velocity of the sample return capsule as it enters Earth's atmosphere at 46,440 kilometers per hour (28,860 miles per hour) will be the greatest of any human-made object on record. This will surpass the record set in May 1969 during the return of the Apollo 10 command module.

The capsule will release a drogue parachute at an altitude of approximately 32 kilometers (105,000 feet). Once the capsule has descended to an altitude of about 3 kilometers (10,000 feet) at 5:05 a.m. EST, the main parachute will deploy. The capsule is scheduled to land on the salt flats of the Utah Test and Training Range at 5:12 a.m. EST.

If weather conditions allow, the recovery team will be flown by helicopter to recover the capsule and fly it to the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, for initial processing. If weather does not allow helicopters to fly, special off-road vehicles will be used to transport the recovery team to retrieve the capsule and return it to Dugway. The collector grid with cometary and interstellar samples will be moved to a special laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, where they will be preserved and studied by scientists.
Those living out west have a chance to view Stardust's re-entry, weather permitting. Here's a map courtesy of Spaceweather.com showing the flightpath. As Dr. Phillips notes:

The best observing sites: near Carlin and Elko, Nevada, where the man-made meteor is expected to shine as much as 60 times brighter than Venus. The fireball should be visible from parts of Oregon, Idaho and Utah as well as California and Nevada.

Sounds like quite a sight!

Stay tuned.

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Blogger Wolverine said...

More details on Space.com as of this morning:

Stardust's Plan B
Complete Stardust coverage

8:04 AM CST  
Blogger Wolverine said...

More new goodies on the Planetary Society Weblog

8:11 PM CST  

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