Stardust and Aerogel Return Home Again

by Nancy Atkinson on January 12, 2009

Artist rendering of Stardust-NeXT spacecraft approaching Earth's gravitational pull, resulting in accelerating of spacecraft and bending of flight path. Courtesy: NASA

Artist rendering of Stardust-NeXT spacecraft approaching Earth's gravitational pull, resulting in accelerating of spacecraft and bending of flight path. Courtesy: NASA


Remember the Stardust mission that returned samples of comet dust back to Earth in 2006? The spacecraft dropped off a capsule containing samples of a comet’s coma and interstellar dust particles, but the spacecraft “bus” is still out there in an elongated orbit of the sun. It will come home again, swinging by Earth on January 14, at 19:40 UTC (12:40 pm PST), getting a gravity assist from the home planet as it flies approximately 5713 miles (9200 kilometers) from the Earth’s surface. But the spacecraft isn’t just wandering the solar system with nothing to do. It has a new job and a new mission. Called Stardust NExT, (New Exploration of Tempel 1) the spacecraft will re-survey comet Tempel 1 – the comet that the Deep Impact mission left a mark on — encountering the comet on Feb. 14, 2011.

And remember aerogel – the wispy material that collected the comet dust? Turns out this stuff can come home, too: into homes and other buildings as a super-insulating material. Engineers say using aerogel as an insulator can increase the thermal insulation factor of a wall by over 40%!

Lightweight, wispy aerogel.  Credit: NASA

Lightweight, wispy aerogel. Credit: NASA


If you’ve ever had the chance to handle aerogel, you know it’s really weird stuff. It’s fragile, but it’s also strong. You can crush it easily in your hand, but it has just the right qualities to be able to capture dust particles zooming in space at extremely high speeds without breaking, and was “gentle” enough to preserve the particles. Engineers say the aerogel insulation technology developed by NASA, is the highest insulating material in existence, and the company Thermablok(TM) developed an amazing product that may soon become a requirement in the building industry.

Aerogel, also referred to as “frozen smoke,” has been difficult to adapt to most uses because it’s so fragile The patented Thermablok material however overcomes this by using a unique fiber to suspend a proprietary formula of Aerogel such that it can be bent or compressed while still retaining its amazing insulation properties.

Aerogel-based insulation.

Aerogel-based insulation.


Aerogel material is 95% air, and just a 1/4″ x 1-1/2″ (6.25mm x 38mm) strip of Thermablok(TM) added to each stud in a wall before putting on drywall, breaks the “thermal bridging,” increasing the thermal insulation factor of a wall by 42%.

The U.S. Department of Energy has verified the findings on the producst’s thermal capability. Plus its recyclable, fire resistant and not affected by water (so no mold).

Speaking of recyclable, NASA’s plans for the Stardust spacecraft to revisit Tempel 1 will finish the investigation begun in 2005 when the Deep Impact mission blasted a crater into the comet. “The crater’s there,” said Joseph Veverka, Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University and Principal Investigator of Stardust-NExT, “but we’ve never seen it.” That’s because the cloud of material ejected from the crater obscured the Deep Impact spacecraft’s view. By the time the particles slowly settled back down to the comet’s surface, the spacecraft, traveling at about 10 km (about 6 miles) per second, was gone.

Looking into the crater with Stardust-NExT will provide mankind’s first view of a comet’s internal structure, information that is not only scientifically interesting, but vital to our future ability to keep a comet from hitting the Earth. Even the size of the crater will be revealing. “That will tell us the mechanical properties of the subsurface of the comet,” Veverka said. “In other words, how does the comet respond to impacts? And that’s one of the fundamental things that you’d need to know if you were trying to blow up a comet or push it out of the way.”

Stardust was originally launched in 1999, and in January 2004, the spacecraft performed a risky and historic flyby of Comet Wild 2 to capture the samples and take pictures of the comet’s nucleus.

Sources: Space Ref, Stardust NExT mission

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Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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