NASA's comet trekking spacecraft Stardust has officially ended operations. Stardust sent its last transmission to Earth on March 24 having traveled an incredible 3.54 billion miles (5.69 billion kilometers) over a 12 year period to become "NASA's most traveled comet hunter."
"This is the end of the spacecraft's operations, but really just the beginnings of what this spacecraft's accomplishments will give to planetary science," said Lindley Johnson, Stardust-NExT and Discovery program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The treasure-trove of science data and engineering information collected and returned by Stardust is invaluable for planning future deep space planetary missions."
Launched on Febuary 7, 1999, Stardust's prime mission was to travel past an asteroid named Annefrank and onwards to Jupiter to collect particle samples from the comet Wild 2. The mission was successfully completed in 2006 after the spacecraft traveled back to Earth to deliver its particle sample canister. With Stardust in great condition and with plenty of fuel onboard, NASA gave the spacecraft a new name, Stardust NExT, and a new directive to take images of the comet Tempel 1 which was struck by a probe during the Deep Impact mission in 2005. This marked the first time a comet has been visited twice, and the first spacecraft to visit two comets.
Stardust's last undertaking was to burn the remaining fuel in its tanks and fuel lines. As there are no reliable fuel gauges in the weightless environment of space, mission planners use fuel consumption models to track fuel levels by calculating the vehicle's flight history with the amount and length of time rockets have fired. "Stardust's motors burned for 146 seconds," said Allan Cheuvront, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company program manager for Stardust-NExT in Denver. "We'll crunch the numbers and see how close the reality matches up with our projections. That will be a great data set to have in our back pocket when we plan for future missions."
Stardust successfully completed all missions in its long life and is a model of durability and reliability for its builders Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
"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," said Stardust-NExT project manager Tim Larson from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Only there's no setting sun in space."
NASA's overview of the Stardust project can be seen in the video below: