Feeds

NASA's Stardust set to 'burn to depletion'

Comet hunter's career ends with a bang whoosh

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

The career of NASA's Stardust spacecraft comes to an end this evening when it performs a final firing of its engines, shuts down its transmitters and floats off into history.

The veteran comet-hunter launched in February 1999 on its primary mission to collect dust from Comet Wild 2. That proved a success, with samples parachuted to Earth in a capsule in January 2006. NASA then decided Stardust was up to another challenge, so dispatched the craft on the "Stardust-NExT" mission to photograph comet Tempel 1.

Stardust once again delivered, sending back photos of its February close encounter, and NASA hopes that during its swansong burn today, it'll end its life with a last burst of useful data.

Stardust-NExT project manager Tim Larson, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained: "We call it a 'burn to depletion,' and that is pretty much what we're doing – firing our rockets until there is nothing left in the tank.

"It's a unique way for an interplanetary spacecraft to go out. Essentially, Stardust will be providing us useful information to the very end."

The question NASA wants to answer is just how much "ultra pure hydrazine monopropellant" Stardust has left in its tanks - something which the agency can compare with its estimates to get "a better idea how valid our fuel consumption models are and make our predictions even more accurate for future missions".

NASA explains: "Fuel consumption models are necessary because no one has invented an entirely reliable fuel gauge for spacecraft. Until that day arrives, mission planners can approximate fuel usage by looking at the history of the vehicle's flight and how many times and for how long its rocket motors have fired."

Artist's impression of Stardust's burn to depletion. Pic: NASA

Stardust will burn to depletion at around 23:00 GMT. NASA expects this to last for between two and ten minutes. Larson explained: "What we think will happen is that when the fuel reaches a critically low level, gaseous helium will enter the thruster chambers.

"The resulting thrust will be less than 10 percent of what was expected. While Stardust will continue to command its rocket engines to fire until the pre-planned firing time of 45 minutes has elapsed, the burn is essentially over."

Once it's out of juice, Stardust will turn off its transmitters to ensure "unintended radio interference" can't affect future space missions. Without attitude control, the spacecraft won't be able to keep its solar panels pointing at the Sun, meaning battery death within hours.

Wherever the body of Stardust eventually travels, it's unlikely to return to Earth in the near future. Larson assured: "When we take into account all the possibilities for how long the burn could be and then the possible post-burn trajectories, we project that over the next 100 years, Stardust will not get any closer than 1.7 million miles of Earth's orbit, or within 13 million miles of Mars orbit."

NASA has more on Stardust here and its burn to depletion here.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
MEN: For pity's sake SLEEP with LOTS of WOMEN - and avoid Prostate Cancer
And, um, don't sleep with other men. If that's what worries you
Voyager 1 now EIGHTEEN LIGHT HOURS from home
Almost 20 BEEELION kilometres from Sol
HUGE SHARK as big as a WWII SUBMARINE died out, allowing whales to exist
Who'd win a fight: Megalodon or a German battleship?
Jim Beam me up, Scotty! WHISKY from SPAAACE returns to Earth
They're insured for $1m, before you thirsty folks make plans
ROGUE SAIL BOAT blocks SPACE STATION PODULE blastoff
Er, we think our ISS launch beats your fishing expedition
Comet Siding Spring revealed as flying molehill
Hiding from this space pimple isn't going to do humanity's reputation any good
BAE points electromagnetic projectile at US Army
Railguns for 'Future fighting vehicle'
LONG ARM of the SAUR: Brachially gifted dino bone conundrum solved
Deinocheirus mirificus was a bit of a knuckle dragger
prev story

Whitepapers

Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Getting ahead of the compliance curve
Learn about new services that make it easy to discover and manage certificates across the enterprise and how to get ahead of the compliance curve.