How the Mission Will Unfold


Third time a charm: Slightly larger than a refrigerator, the diminutive Stardust spacecraft will make two looping swings around the sun before closing in on Wild-2 the third time around the sun.

Collecting stardust: At points along the way, the craft is scheduled to collect samples of tiny interstellar particles -- or stardust -- that stream through the solar system. To do that, a cone-shaped clamshell on the end of Stardust will open, unfolding a collection device best described as an oversize tennis racket. The racket has 130 rectangular compartments on each side. One side will be used to collect particle samples en route to the comet. The other is reserved for the encounter with Wild-2.

Going in: NASA's Stardust space probe is expected to reach Wild-2 about five years after launch, at a point almost twice Earth's distance from the sun. As the probe approaches, it will unfurl the tennis racket and fly to a position below Wild-2's orbit. Stardust is expected to close within 93 miles of Wild-2's nucleus. Even at that distance, the spacecraft risks becoming cosmic road kill. Bullet-proof shields can protect the probe from objects the size of peas, but larger strikes could cripple it.

Gathering data: During the craft's 10 hours with the comet's coma, an onboard camera will take pictures while a spectrometer gathers data on Wild-2's chemical makeup. Sensors will monitor the size and frequency of dust particles as they strike the probe.

Coming home: If the tiny spacecraft survives, it will begin a two-year trip home. Assuming Stardust stays on track, the clamshell Sample Return Capsule will be pushed away from the probe as it nears Earth. It is scheduled to parachute to Earth on Jan. 15, 2006, having traveled 3.2 billion miles.

Names in Space
The Stardust mission will give more than a million earthlings their chance to mingle with the stars.
As a public outreach project, NASA asked people to submit their names to be etched on a microchip that would fly aboard the spacecraft. A microchip containing 136,000 names collected over the Internet -- as well as photos and letters from key Stardust project members -- has been put inside the capsule for return to Earth. Another chip with a million more names will remain on the expendable Stardust probe as it flies aimlessly through space, its mission completed.
If the probe eventually drifts beyond the boundaries of our solar system, the names on the chip could achieve a sort of immortality, not unlike some of the comets themselves.