|Giotto 1 liftoff. Image credit: European Space Agency|
A "dirty snowball" containing materials left over from the birth of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago, Halley needs about 76 years to revolve around the Sun once. Its elliptical orbit takes it from the cold emptiness beyond Neptune to the space between the orbits of Venus and Mercury. Halley travels around the Sun in a retrograde orbit, meaning that it orbits "backwards" relative to the eight planets and most other objects making up the Solar System.
Comet Halley has passed through the inner Solar System 30 times since its first verified recorded apparition in 240 B.C. In 837 A.D., it passed just 5.1 million kilometers from Earth; during that apparition, its dust tail must have spanned nearly half the sky, and its bright coma – the roughly spherical dust and gas cloud surrounding its icy nucleus – may have appeared as large as the full moon.
Shortly after its bright apparition in the year 1301, Italian artist Giotto di Bondone was inspired to add Comet Halley to his painting The Adoration of the Magi. The Giotto spacecraft was named for him.
|Comet Halley appears near the top of Giotto di Bondone's The Adoration of the Magi.|
The Ariane 1's third stage injected 980-kilogram Giotto into a 198.5-by-36,000-kilometer orbit about the Earth. Thirty-two hours after launch, as it completed its third orbit, flight controllers in Darmstadt in the Federal Republic of Germany commanded drum-shaped Giotto to ignite its French-built Mage solid-propellant rocket motor. The motor burned 374 kilograms of propellant in 55 seconds to inject the spinning 2.85-meter-tall, 1.85-meter-diameter spacecraft into orbit about the Sun.
Two months before Giotto's launch, Americans P. Tsou (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), D. Brownlee (University of Washington), and A. Albee (California Institute of Tech) proposed in a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society that a second Giotto mission be launched to fly close by one of 13 candidate comets between 1988 and 1994. They proposed that the new spacecraft, which they dubbed Giotto II, might launch on an Ariane 3 or in the payload bay of a Space Shuttle. Giotto II's "free-return" trajectory would take it as close as 80 kilometers from the target comet's nucleus, then would return it to Earth.
Near the comet, Giotto II would expose sample collectors to the dusty cometary environment. Near Earth, it would eject a sample-return capsule based on the proven General Electric (GE) Satellite Recovery Vehicle (SRV) design. The capsule would enter Earth's atmosphere to deliver its precious cargo of comet dust to eager scientists.
Tsou, Brownlee, and Albee pointed out that the Mage solid-propellant motor was not required to boost Giotto into interplanetary space; that is, that the Ariane 1 could do the job itself. Giotto was, however, based on a British Aerospace-built Geos magnetospheric satellite design, which included the Mage motor. Re-testing the design without the motor would have cost time and money, so ESA elected to retain it for Giotto. After noting that the GE SRV could fit comfortably in the space reserved for the Mage, they proposed that, in Giotto II, the reentry capsule should replace the motor.
Giotto included on its aft end a "Whipple bumper" - named for its inventor, planetary astronomer Fred Whipple - to protect it from hypervelocity dust impacts. During approach to Comet Halley, the spacecraft would turn the bumper in its direction of flight. The bumper comprised a one-millimeter-thick aluminum shield plate designed to break up, vaporize, and slow impactors, a 25-centimeter empty space, and a 12-millimeter-thick Kevlar sheet to halt the partially vaporized, partially fragmented impactors that penetrated the aluminum shield.
In the case of Comet Halley, dust would impact the bumper at up to 68 kilometers per second. Tsou, Brownlee, and Albee noted that the 13 candidate Giotto II comets were all less dusty and would have lower dust impact velocities than Halley. Because of this, Giotto II would need less shielding than Giotto.
Comet dust would, nonetheless, create challenges for Giotto II. Tsou, Brownlee, and Albee devoted much of their paper to describing how the spacecraft might successfully capture dust for return to Earth. One proposed capture system, based on the Whipple bumper design, would use a shield made from ultrapure material to vaporize and slow impacting dust particles. The vapor from the impactor and the impacted part of the bumper would then be captured as it condensed. Scientists would disregard the bumper material when they analyzed the condensate.
Tsou, Brownlee, and Albee also noted that thermal blankets from the Solar Maximum Mission (SMM) satellite, launched into Earth orbit on 14 February 1980, had demonstrated that intact capture of high-velocity particles was possible. The multilayer Kapton/Mylar blankets, which were returned to Earth on board the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS 41-C, 6-13 April 1984), had been found to have collected hundreds of intact meteoroids and human-made orbital debris particles.
The three scientists described preliminary experiments in which gas guns were used to fire meteoroid and glass fragments at "underdense materials," such as polymer foams and fiber felts. The experiments suggested that such materials could capture at least partially intact comet dust particles.
Giotto's encounter with Comet Halley spanned 13-14 March 1986. At closest approach the spacecraft passed just 596 kilometers from Halley's nucleus. The comet’s 15-by-eight-by-eight-kilometer heart turned out to be extremely dark, with powerful jets of dust and gas blasting outward into space.
|Artist's concept: Giotto at Halley. Image credit: European Space Agency|
|Halley's hot heart as imaged by ESA's Giotto spacecraft.|
On 2 July 1990, five years to the day after its launch, Giotto flew past Earth at a distance of 16,300 kilometers, becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft to receive a gravity-assist boost from its homeworld. The gravity-assist flyby put it on course for Comet Grigg-Skjellurup, which it flew by at a distance of 200 kilometers on 10 July 1992.
After determining that Giotto had less than seven kilograms of hydrazine propellant left on board, ESA turned it off on 23 July 1992. The inert spacecraft flew past Earth a second time at a distance of 219,000 kilometers on 1 July 1999.
By that time, a comet coma sample return mission was under way with two of the Giotto II proposers playing central roles. In late 1995, Stardust became the fourth mission selected for NASA's Discovery Program of low-cost robotic missions. Brownlee and Tsou, respectively Stardust Principal Investigator and Deputy Principal Investigator, designed the mission's sample capture system.
|Artist's concept of the NASA Stardust spacecraft at Wild 2. Image credit: NASA|
Stardust returned to Earth on 15 January 2006. Its sample capsule streaked through the pre-dawn sky over the U.S. West Coast before parachuting to a landing on a salt pan in Utah.
When opened on 17 January 2006 at NASA's Johnson Space Center, in the same lab that received the Apollo moon rocks, Stardust's 132 aerogel capture cells were found to contain thousands of intact dust grains captured from Wild 2. Subsequent analysis indicated that some probably formed close to other stars before our Solar System was born.
"Comet Coma Sample Return via Giotto II," P. Tsou, D. Brownlee, and A. Albee, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Volume 38, May 1985, pp. 232-239
ESA Remembers the Night of the Comet, European Space Agency, 11 March 2011 (accessed 26 August 2016)
Stardust: NASA's Comet Sample Return Mission, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (accessed 26 August 2016)