Goodbyes are never easy, especially those said in the cold and silence of space. After 12 years and multiple missions, Lockheed Martin waved a final farewell to Stardust last week.
NASA’s Stardust spacecraft launched Feb. 7, 1999. Its original mission sent it across the trajectory of the Annefrank asteroid, and half way to Jupiter where it rendezvoused with the Wild 2 comet, collected samples and returned to Earth.
In 2005, NASA rechristened the ship Stardust-NExT and sent it on another mission, this one to the comet Tempel 1. Stardust collected images and data to compare with previous mission findings, and then set off to circle the sun.
It was that last solar sail that proved to be Stardust’s death knell. After traveling 3.54 billion miles, the last 13 million drained what was left of the ship’s fuel.
Shepherded from birth by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the team performed a depletion maneuver to burn the last of the fuel March 24. At 4:33 p.m. PDT, Stardust sent its last transmission and slipped the surly bonds of earth.
“This kind of feels like the end of one of those old western movies where you watch the hero ride his horse towards the distant setting sun and then the credits begin to roll,” said Stardust NExT Project Manager Tim Larson. “Only there’s no setting sun in space.”