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Stardust spacecraft using NMSU-made antennas

NASA's Stardust mission, scheduled to return to Earth on Sunday with a precious cargo of comet particles and interstellar dust, has communicated with scientists on Earth using antennas designed and built by New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory (PSL).

Image is available on NASA's Web site at http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/spacecraft.html

Stardust, launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1999, collected particles from comet Wild 2 in January 2004. It is about to complete its 708-million-mile trek back to Earth with a capsule that will parachute to the ground Sunday at the Utah Test and Training Range.

During its seven-year mission, Stardust has communicated with Earth using a telecommunications subsystem and antennas developed by a team of NMSU engineers, scientists and graduate students. Managed by PSL's Sam Mares with Thomas Greenling and Russell Jedlicka, the team 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 engineers Greenling and Tracy Hooker were resident at a Lockheed Martin facility in Denver to support the telecommunications system design and integration.

PSL also developed the locator beacon antenna for the return capsule, which is scheduled to land at 3:12 a.m. MST Sunday.

The antennas were designed for the temperatures and vibrations they would have to withstand during launch and the long trip through space. They were designed by Jedlicka, a faculty member in the NMSU Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Bruce Blevins, head of PSL's Electromagnetics Group, and developed by a team of NMSU technicians for the mission.

Stardust needed multiple antennas to enable it to communicate with NASA's Deep Space Network at various stages of its mission. It used the Boeing-developed high-gain antenna for data downloads during the comet encounter. The medium-gain antenna developed by PSL has been used for most of the flight except for the encounter. 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's samples of comet particles and interstellar dust are enclosed in a clamshell-like capsule scheduled to be dropped off for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere early Sunday morning. Equipped with parachutes and communicating with NASA scientists via a PSL-developed locator beacon and antennas, the capsule will float to the Utah desert, where it will be retrieved and its contents delivered to scientists for detailed analysis.

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 that was launched in 2001 and returned with solar wind particle samples in 2004.

PSL has developed many subsystems for other 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's Electromagnetics Group (EMAG) has more recently developed and delivered antennas for spacecraft including the TERRIERS, HETE, MOST, MightySAT, Coriollis, Themis, ST-5, antennas for the Minuteman III missile system, and other NASA and Department of Defense projects.

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 east of Las Cruces. It is used for tests of NASA and Department of Defense antenna systems, including full-scale mockup tests that passersby can sometimes see from the road.