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StardustA NASA probe that was launched Feb. 7 1999 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to rendezvous with Comet Wild 2 and collect particle samples from its coma for return to the Earth. The Stardust project formed part of NASA's Discovery program, dedicated to making low-cost investigations of the Solar System. It was managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. Its target, Comet Wild 2, was discovered in 1978 by the astronomer Paul Wild. It travels around the Sun once every 6.39 years between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Stardust's journey to the comet took it across 3.2 billion kilometers of interplanetary space swept by cosmic rays, solar wind particles, and interstellar dust, and involved a gravity-assist flyby of the Earth in 2001 to speed it on its way. In 2000 and 2002, Stardust collected samples of interstellar dust. On Nov. 2 2002 the probe flew by asteroid (5535) Annefrank. Stardust encountered Comet Wild 2 on Jan. 2 2004, approaching to within 240 km of the comet. Protected by special shields from high-speed collisions with material blown off from the comet as it circles the Sun, the craft collected its samples of microscopic particles from the coma using a device that employs aerogel, a substance formed from silicon dioxide and air, as a particle trap. This device, which had also been used to capture the interstellar dust particles, was then folded down into the sealed sample-return capsule. The Stardust probe's on-board camera also captured detailed images of the comet and transmitted them back to Earth. Stardust returned to the vicinity of Earth on Jan. 15 2006, when it released the capsule, which entered Earth's atmosphere and made a parachute-assisted landing at the Utah Test and Training Range near Salt lake City. After this maneuver, the main Stardust craft entered permanent solar orbit.
Collins Dictionary of Astronomy © Market House Books Ltd, 2006