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Stardust Mission Status

April 6, 1999

It's not a space race, but NASA's comet-bound Stardust spacecraft, launched in February, has now pulled ahead of two other NASA spacecraft launched earlier on trips to Mars.

Stardust, traveling fast enough to cross the United States in less than two minutes, last week passed the slightly slower- moving Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander spacecraft. At this point in their journeys, all three spacecraft are in the same vicinity of our solar system, each traveling on a trajectory that will reach Mars' orbit, but only two will stop there. Stardust will keep traveling on its egg-shaped trajectory to eventually meet up in 2004 with Comet Wild-2, where it will collect samples of comet dust for return to Earth in 2006.

Today, Stardust is traveling at a speed of more than 114,000 kilometers per hour (about 70,000 mph). Mars Climate Orbiter is traveling at a speed of about 100,750 kilometers per hour (about 62,600 mph) and will enter orbit around the red planet in September. Mars Polar Lander, traveling a speed of 106,000 kilometers per hour (about 65,800 mph), is due to land on Mars in December. For the Mars spacecraft, slower is better, because less energy will be required to brake the spacecraft when its time for them to land or enter orbit around Mars.

Stardust is roughly between the two other spacecraft, with Mars Climate Orbiter more than 7 million kilometers (4.3 million miles) starboard of Stardust, and Mars Polar Lander more than 16 million kilometers (about 10 million miles) to Stardust's portside. Their relative trajectories can be seen at: .

Three communications sessions were conducted with Stardust last week through NASA's Deep Space Network, and the spacecraft remains in excellent health. Controllers tracking Stardust at Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, CO, successfully received navigation camera images that had been stored on the spacecraft, and set the comet and interstellar dust analyzer instrument in its flight operations mode. Mission controllers are monitoring temperature and other engineering data from the solid-state power amplifier at a higher rate to analyze a slight tuning variation in Stardust's radio signal that occurs with changing spacecraft temperatures. Analysis continues into why Stardust's main computer was overwhelmed last month with too many instructions while testing the spacecraft's navigation camera.

The principal investigator for the Stardust mission is Dr. Donald C. Brownlee of the University of Washington. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. The spacecraft was built and is operated by Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver. Its instruments were provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Chicago, and the Max Planck Institute, Garching, Germany. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.

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