Stardust success

by Chris Bergin

The comet sampling probe Stardust has successfully returned to Earth after a 2.88 billion journey around the solar system.

Racing through the entry-interface stage at 28,860mph, faster than the previous record holder – the Apollo 10 capsule, Stardust’s capsule landed in Utah this morning, containing what scientists believe to be the answers to fundamental questions about the origin of the solar system.

The capsule parachuted down to the surface at U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake City with the contents of cometary and interstellar dust particles.

‘All stations, we have touchdown,’ Stardust Project Manager Tom Duxbury of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced at 5:12 a.m. EST (10:12 a.m. GMT), after which NASA scientists at Mission Control broke into applause and cheers.

Helicopters quickly found the capsule, which was examined and packed up for a trip to the Michael Army Air Field at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah for initial processing.

Later, the samples will be moved to a special laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, where they will be preserved and studied.

‘With the information we gathered during our encounter with comet Wild 2 in January 2004, Stardust has already provided us with some remarkable science,’ said Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator at the University of Washington in Seattle.

‘With the return of cometary samples,’ he added, ‘we’ll be able to work with the actual building materials of the solar system as they were when the solar system was formed. It will be a great day for science.’

Stardust launched on Feb. 7, 1999, and encountered comet Wild 2 on Jan. 2, 2004. It flew less than 150 miles from the comet’s nucleus to capture tiny grains of dust. During the voyage, the spacecraft captured bits of interstellar dust streaming into the solar system from other parts of the galaxy.

Expected timelines:

Capsule Milestones (all times approximate EST on Jan. 15)
12:57a.m.: Spacecraft releases capsule Complete
4:57 a.m.: Capsule enters Earth atmosphere Complete
5:05 a.m.: Main parachute deploys Complete
5:12 a.m.: Capsule lands Complete
5:22 a.m. (approx.): Helicopter and crew land near capsule
7:20 a.m. (approx.): Capsule
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