Following a journey of 2.88 billion miles, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft is closing in on Earth, ready to send it’s sample return capsule into the fastest re-entry of a man-made object.
Racing through the entry-interface stage at 28,860mph, faster than the previous record holder – the Apollo 10 capsule, Stardust’s capsule contains what scientists believe to be the answers to fundamental questions about the origin of the solar system.
Stardust’s journey around the edge of the solar system is scheduled to end with the return of the capsule on January 15. Parachuting down to the surface at U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake City will be the contents of cometary and interstellar dust particles.
‘Comets are some of the most informative occupants of the solar system. The more we can learn from science exploration missions like Stardust, the more we can prepare for human exploration to the moon, Mars and beyond,’ said Mary Cleave, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
The capsule will release a drogue parachute at approximately 105,000 feet. Once the capsule has descended to about 10,000 feet, the main parachute will deploy. The capsule is scheduled to land on the range at 5:12 a.m. EST.
After the capsule lands, if conditions allow, a helicopter crew will fly it to the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, for initial processing. If weather does not allow helicopters to fly, special off-road vehicles will retrieve the capsule and return it to Dugway. Samples will be moved to a special laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, where they will be preserved and studied.
‘Locked within the cometary particles is unique chemical and physical information that could be the record of the formation of the planets and the materials from which they were made,’ said Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator at the University of Washington, Seattle.
NASA expects most of the collected particles to be no more than a third of a millimeter across. Scientists will slice these particle samples into even smaller pieces for study.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. manages the Stardust mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operates the spacecraft.