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NASA’s Stardust Performs Its Final Mission

March 25, 2011

After 12 years of providing NASA with lessons about our solar system, the Stardust spacecraft has sent its last commands to burn off all its fuel. In its final moments, the spacecraft continues to teach us.

The “burn to depletion maneuver was designed to fire Stardust’s rockets until insufficient fuel remains to continue, all the while downlinking data on the burn to Earth some 312 million kilometers (194 million miles) away,” released NASA in a press release.

Based on the Stardust-NExt team’s fuel consumption models, mission personnel will compare the amount of fuel consumed during the burn with the amount anticipated. 

Stardust-NExt project manager, Tim Larson says, “Stardust has been teaching us about our solar system since it was launched in 1999. It makes sense that its very last moments would be providing us with data we can use to plan deep space mission operations in the future.”

No one has yet invented a reliable fuel gauge for spacecraft when they are in the weightless environment of space flight; therefore, fuel consumption models are necessary. By looking at the history of other vehicle flights, mission planners are able to approximate fuel usage. This is done by calculating how many times and for how long its rocket motors have fired.

It took 146 seconds (a little under 2 and a half minutes) to burn off all of Stardust’s fuel says Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company program manager Allan Cheuvront. The company built and operated the Stardust spacecraft for NASA since the project began in 1996, reports the AP.

It will take the team several days to analyze the data and compare it with the projections, says Cheuvront. “That will be a great data set to have in our back pocket when we plan for future mission.”

Stardust is NASA’s most senior comet hunting spacecraft. The final burn to depletion was necessary because it was literally running on fumes.

In January of 2006, the spacecraft performed its main mission by “sending a tiny sample of particles from the Wild 2 comet to Earth via a parachute-equipped canister,” reports the AP.

NASA reprogrammed Stardust for a bonus mission to fly past comet Tempel 1 and collect images and other scientific data.

Stardust has journeyed a grand total of 5.69 billion kilometers (3.4 billion miles) during its time in space. The team knew it was getting closer to the end for the history’s most traveled spacecraft.

“This kind of feels like the end of one of those old Western movies where you watch the hero ride his horse towards the distant setting sun ““ and then the credits begin to roll,” Larson says.

Image Caption: Space exploration’s most traveled comet hunter, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, illustrated in this artist’s concept, completed its 12 year mission on March 24, 2011. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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