Stardust, Space Craft

The first mission to collect and return space dust

  • Launched 7 February 1999
  • Encountered comet Wild 2 in January 2004
  • Stardust capsule returned to Earth with dust on 15 January 2006
Stardust is a NASA Discovery mission and was the first mission to collect and return space dust to Earth.

In 2004, Stardust flew for several hours through the dust and gas making up comet Wild 2’s tail. It captured interstellar particles smaller than a grain of sand and the spacecraft’s Sample Return Capsule (SRC) brought these samples back to Earth in 2006.

The SRC landed safely by parachute in the Utah desert in the United States and the spacecraft was then put into orbit around the Sun.

In 2007, NASA approved Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel 1) - a new mission to comet Tempel 1.

Deep Impact has already visited this comet and so, on its arrival in 2011, Stardust-NExT will continue mapping the comet and, if possible, determine the size of the crater formed by Deep Impact’s impactor. Tempel 1 will have made a close approach to the sun so Startdust-NExT will also examine the changes the comet’s nucleus during its orbit.

For more information, visit the NASA Stardust homepage.

Mission facts

  • The interstellar particles were captured by a special gel on a collector shaped like a tennis racquet.

  • The Stardust Sample Return Capsule (SRC) hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 41,843 km per hour.

  • Stardust-NExT will return to Earth in 2009 and use the Earth’s gravity to help it on its way towards comet Tempel 1.

  • The spacecraft is scheduled to reach comet Tempel 1 in 2011.


Stardust weighs 380 kg, including propellant, and is considered a lightweight spacecraft.

CIDA (Comet and Interstellar Dust Analyzer), NavCam (Navigation Camera) and DFM (Dust Flux Monitors) are carried in the spacecraft’s payload.

CIDA analyses the composition of dust for real time transmission back to Earth. It is the same instrument design that flew on Giotto and the Vega Halley missions.

The gel used on the collectors is called aerogel. It is a type of foamed glass and some forms can be up to 99.8 per cent air. Silicon-based and porous, it has the lowest density of any known solid yet it can support up to 4,000 times its own weight.

UK involvement

The Open University designed sensors for the Dust Flux Monitor instrument and provided dust coma modelling.

A UK consortium of researchers from the University of Leicester, Kent University, Glasgow University, the Open University and the Natural History Museum is now studying the cometary samples using electron microscopes, probes and the new Diamond synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire.

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