NASA's Stardust spacecraft successfully shot into a clear blue sky atop a Delta II rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Station at 4:04:15 p.m. EST (1:04:15 p.m. PST) today to become the first U.S. mission destined for a comet, and the first-ever spacecraft sent to bring a sample of a comet sample back to Earth.
The Stardust team reported that the spacecraft was in excellent health and that its power and temperature levels are normal. The spacecraft is in communication with NASA's Deep Space Network, and is controlled through the mission operations area at Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, Colo., and monitored at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., where the mission is managed.
Sixty-six seconds after liftoff, the four solid rocket motors on the Delta were discarded and the first stage continued to burn until it shut down and fell away about 4 minutes, 30 seconds into the mission. A few seconds later, the Delta's second stage ignited and burned for about 5 minutes, cutting off at 9 minutes, 55 seconds into the mission. Almost immediately after the second-stage ignition, the fairing or nose-cone enclosure around the Stardust spacecraft was jettisoned.
After coasting for about 11 minutes, the second-stage engine restarted and burned for about 2 minutes. The third stage separated from the second stage 24 minutes, 27 seconds into the mission; the Star 37 third stage ignited 25 minutes, 4 seconds into the mission, burning for about 2 minutes. At 27 minutes, 19 seconds into the mission -- or 4:31:34 p.m. EST -- the Stardust spacecraft separated from the Delta's third stage, stopping its spinning by firing onboard thrusters. About 4 minutes after separation, Stardust's solar arrays began to unfold and pointed toward the Sun. The spacecraft's signal was successfully acquired by the NASA Deep Space Network complex in Canberra, Australia, 51 minutes after launch at 4:55 p.m. EST.
Stardust is on a flight path that will deliver it to Comet Wild-2 (pronounced "Vilt-2" on January 2, 2004. The spacecraft will gather particles flying off the nucleus of the comet. In addition, Stardust will attempt to gather samples from a stream of interstellar dust that flows through the solar system. Captured in a glass foam called aerogel, the comet and interstellar dust samples will be enclosed in a clamshell-like capsule that will be dropped off for reentry into Earth's atmosphere in January 2006. Equipped with parachutes, the capsule will float to a pre-selected spot in the Utah desert, where it will be retrieved and its contents delivered to scientists for detailed analysis.
Editor's Note: The Stardust Home Page can be found at http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/.
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