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Comet-hunting spacecraft shuts down after 12 years

Mar 25, 2011 4:39:00 AM - thestate.com
With the click of a mouse, Sandy Freund Kasper sent a command to NASA's comet-hunting Stardust space probe to burn all its fuel, starting a sequence that would shut the spacecraft down after a 12-year run.

"Like saying goodbye to a friend," said Allan Cheuvront, the Stardust program manager for Lockheed Martin, who has worked on the probe since 1996, when it was still in the design stage.

"It's been an amazing spacecraft," he said Thursday. "It's done everything we asked, it's done it perfectly."

Launched in 1999, Stardust finished its main mission in 2006, sending a tiny sample of particles from the Wild 2 comet to Earth via a parachute-equipped canister. NASA then recycled the probe, sending it past a comet last month to photograph a crater left by a projectile launched by another space probe.

It accomplished one last experiment on Thursday, firing its thrusters until its last hydrazine fuel was gone. The length of that burn, a little under 2 1/2 minutes, will tell engineers exactly how much fuel was left so they can see how accurate their calculations were.

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