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Launched in February 1999, the industrious spacecraft Stardust-NExT zipped by comet Wild 2 in January 2004, flying through the comet's coma and snagging particles from that celestial wanderer. Two years later the probe parachuted its sample-carrying capsule into the Utah Test and Training Range in the Utah desert.
The still-operating craft -- renamed Stardust-NExT, for "New Exploration of Tempel 1" -- is en route to inspect Tempel 1, a task begun by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft six years ago. Stardust-NExT's job is to obtain high-resolution images of the comet and, it is hoped, the crater that was made when Deep Impact's impactor slammed into Tempel 1 in July 2005. At the time, the stirred-up debris cloud obscured the view of any newly formed feature.
Here at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, all is in readiness for the upcoming encounter. The aerospace firm has been NASA's industrial partner for Stardust throughout its two-mission life, having designed, built, integrated and tested the spacecraft. Company engineers monitor the health and safety of the spacecraft, develop and send commands over NASA's deep space network, and plan mission activities.