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Comet-chasing spacecraft using antennas developed at NMSU

NASA's comet-chasing Stardust spacecraft has communicated with Earth using antennas designed and built by New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory (PSL).



NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory uses the antenna test range at the base of A Mountain to test antennas for NASA and the Department of Defense. NASA's comet-chasing Stardust spacecraft is using antennas designed and built by PSL. PSL is currently testin


Stardust, which was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 7, 1999, is five years into its seven-year mission to gather comet dust and bring it back to Earth. It recently made national headlines by collecting particles flying off the nucleus of the Comet Wild 2 some 242 million miles from Earth.

Stardust is NASA's first mission to gather material from beyond the orbit of the moon and the first sample-collecting mission to be launched by NASA in more than 25 years. The mission is expected to help researchers learn more about the early formation of the solar system and the role that comets have played in the formation of Earth.

PSL's team of NMSU engineers, scientists and graduate students managed by Sam Mares and Russell Jedlicka spent 18 months in 1997 and 1998 developing the telecommunications subsystem and designing five of the six telecommunications antennas for Stardust. The work was done under contract with Lockheed Martin Astronautics.

PSL also developed the locator beacon and antennas for Stardust's clamshell-like return capsule, which is scheduled to bring comet and interstellar dust samples back to Earth in January 2006.

The Stardust antennas were designed by Jedlicka and Bruce Blevins of PSL and developed by a team of NMSU technicians. "These antennas had to be designed for the temperatures and vibrations they would have to withstand during launch and the long trip through space," Blevins said.

Blevins said Stardust uses different antennas to enable it to communicate with NASA's Deep Space Network at various stages of its mission. Currently it is using the Boeing-developed high-gain antenna. Later, as the spacecraft returns closer to Earth, it will switch to a medium-gain antenna developed by PSL. The medium-gain antenna will have been used for most of the flight except for the encounter with the comet. As the spacecraft makes its closest return approach to Earth it will switch back to the PSL-developed low-gain antennas that will be used for supporting low-data-rate communications with Earth.

Stardust is the second NASA deep-space project for which PSL has developed subsystems. It also contributed to Genesis, a Lockheed Martin Astronautics-built spacecraft launched in 2001 that is expected to return solar wind particle samples in September 2004.

PSL also has contributed to a variety of other NASA projects. It developed the attitude control systems for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, a joint mission between NASA and the National Space Development Agency of Japan designed to monitor and study tropical rainfall; the X-ray Timing Explorer, which was launched in 1995 to explore the variability of X-ray sources; SPARTAN, a satellite launched on the space shuttle to explore the Sun's corona; and the Small Explorer Program, which provides frequent flight opportunities for highly focused and relatively inexpensive space science missions. Attitude control systems control an orbiter's orientation toward objects such as the Earth or the sun.

PSL's Electromagnetics Group (EMAG), headed by Blevins, also has developed and delivered antennas for a variety of satellites that have been deployed to do remote sensing of the Earth. These include the TERRIERS satellite, which will help scientists predict space weather conditions in the ionosphere that can disrupt communications systems on Earth; the HETE satellite, which is designed to detect and localize gamma-ray bursts; and MightySAT, which was launched from the Space Shuttle Endeavour to demonstrate a variety of new space system technologies.

The Electromagnetics Group also recently completed testing an antenna for the Super Sonic Sea Skimming Target Missile being developed for the U.S. Navy. This missile will enable the Navy to test its ship defense mechanisms.

The EMAG antenna test range with its three tall wooden towers is a familiar sight at the base of A Mountain on Dripping Springs Road and is used for many tests of NASA and Department of Defense antenna systems.