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Stardust spacecraft using NMSU-made antennae

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

Stardust, launched Sunday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., is on a seven-year mission to gather comet dust and bring it back to Earth.

Sam Mares, manager of PSL's Electronic Systems Branch, said a team of NMSU engineers, scientists and graduate students spent 18 months developing the telecommunications subsystem and designing five telecommunications antennae for Stardust. The work was done under contract with Lockheed Martin Astronautics.

"We also developed the locator beacon antenna for the return capsule," which is scheduled to bring comet and interstellar dust samples back to Earth in January 2006, Mares said.

The Stardust antennae were designed by Russell Jedlicka and Bruce Blevins of PSL and developed by a team of NMSU technicians for the mission. The antennae were designed for the temperatures and vibrations they would have to withstand, notably during the launch. "They've done a check of all the telecom systems and everything is working perfectly," Mares said as the spacecraft completed the first day of its historic journey.

Stardust is NASA's first mission to gather material from beyond the orbit of the moon. It also is the first sample-collecting mission to be launched by NASA in more than 25 years, but it will not be the first new mission to return its samples to Earth. That honor is expected to go to Genesis, which PSL also is supporting. Genesis is a Lockheed Martin Astronautics-built spacecraft scheduled to be launched in 2001 and to return solar wind particle samples in 2003.

Stardust needs multiple antennae to enable it to communicate with NASA's Deep Space Network at various stages of its mission. Currently it is using low-gain antennae developed by PSL. Later, as the spacecraft travels farther from Earth, it will switch to a medium-gain antenna developed by PSL. The medium gain antenna will be used for most of the flight except for the encounter with the comet. At that point, the spacecraft will switch to a Boeing-developed high-gain antenna that will be used for supporting the high data rates back to Earth.

Stardust's flight path will take it to Comet Wild-2 in January 2004, where the spacecraft will gather particles flying off the nucleus of the comet. Stardust also will attempt to gather samples from a stream of interstellar dust that flows through the solar system.

The samples will be enclosed in a clamshell-like capsule scheduled to be dropped off for reentry into Earth's atmosphere in January 2006. Equipped with parachutes and communicating with NASA scientists via a PSL-developed locator beacon, the capsule will float to the Utah desert, where it will be retrieved and its contents delivered to scientists for detailed analysis.

PSL has developed many subsystems for NASA satellites, such as the attitude control systems for the TRMM (tropical rainfall measurement mission), XTE (x-ray timing experiment), SPARTAN and SMEX payloads. PSL also has developed custom avionic systems and support electronics for various space-borne systems.