Sunday, March 27, 2011

NASA Stardust Spacecraft Officially Ends Operations

NASA's Stardust spacecraft sent its last transmission to Earth at 4:33 p.m. PDT (7:33 p.m. EDT) Thursday, March 24, shortly after depleting fuel and ceasing operations. During a 12-year period, the venerable spacecraft collected and returned comet material to Earth and was reused after the end of its prime mission in 2006 to observe and study another comet during February 2011.

The Stardust team performed the burn to depletion because the comet hunter was literally running on fumes. The depletion maneuver command was sent from the Stardust-NExT mission control area at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. The operation was designed to fire Stardust's rockets until no fuel remained in the tank or fuel lines. The spacecraft sent acknowledgment of its last command from approximately 312 million kilometers (194 million miles) away in space. "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."

After completion of the burn, mission personnel began comparing the computed amount of fuel consumed during the engine firing with the anticipated amount based on consumption models. The models are required to track fuel levels, because there are no fully reliable fuel gauges for spacecraft in the weightless environment of space. Mission planners use approximate fuel usage by reviewing the history of the vehicle's flight, how many times and how long its rocket motors fired.

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