Space capsule streaks back to Earth
Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP
The space capsule appears as a dot on NASA TV as it streaks back to Earth early Sunday. staff and news service reports
updated 1/15/2006 6:46:26 AM ET 2006-01-15T11:46:26

After a seven-year, 2.9 billion-mile round trip, a space capsule floated down to a landing in the Utah desert early Sunday, bringing back interstellar dust and comet samples that scientists hope will yield clues to the origins of the solar system.

"All stations, we have touchdown," mission control announced at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., sparking a round of applause.

NASA's Stardust mission came to a climax in the middle of the night, starting with the sample return capsule's release from its mothership when it was 69,000 miles (110,000 kilometers) away from Earth. The shuttlecock-shaped capsule streaked through the atmosphere at about 29,000 mph (46,000 kilometers per hour), representing the fastest re-entry of any human-made probe.

Parachutes eased the final phase of the descent, ending with the landing at a military test range about 3:10 a.m. MT (5:10 a.m. ET).

“It’s an absolutely fantastic end to the mission,” said Carlton Allen of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The mission marked the first time a spacecraft flew into deep space and brought back tiny fragments of a comet. Most of the granules are so small that a microscope will be required to study them.

The Stardust mothership will remain in permanent orbit around the sun, at the ready in case another mission could make use of its camera and other scientific instruments.

Comets are frozen bodies of ice and dust that formed soon after a gaseous disk collapsed to create the sun and planets 4.6 billion years ago. Comets formed from what was left over, and studying them could shed light on the solar system’s birth.

The cosmic samples were gathered from Comet Wild 2 in 2004 during Stardust’s seven-year journey. The spacecraft used a tennis racket-sized collector mitt to snatch the dust and store it in an aluminum canister.

The mission cost $212 million.

Dust from birth of solar system
Scientists believe about a million samples of comet and interstellar dust — most tinier than the width of a human hair — will be returned.

The dust grains, believed to be pristine leftovers from the birth of the solar system, contain many of the organic molecules necessary for life. Some of the particles are thought to be older than the sun.

Video: Stardust return A helicopter recovery team located the capsule and prepared to bring it to a clean room at Michael Army Air Field in Dugway for processing. From there, it will be flown to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for analysis.

Stardust’s comet samples represent the second robotic retrieval of extraterrestrial material since 1976, when the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 mission brought back lunar rocks and soil.

The first was NASA’s Genesis probe, which crashed at Dugway Proving Ground in 2004 during a failed midair attempt by Hollywood stunt pilots in helicopters to snag it. Scientists spent several days picking through the wreckage to salvage the fragile wafers containing solar wind atoms.

The accident was caused by the faulty installation of gravity switches designed to trigger the parachute release. Engineers reviewed Stardust’s blueprints and rechecked its systems to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

Seven years, almost 3 billion miles
Launched in 1999, the Stardust spacecraft traveled nearly 3 billion miles (4.6 billion kilometers), looping around the sun three times.

In 2004, it flew through the comet’s coma, a fuzzy halo of gas and dust. Outfitted with armored bumpers, the spacecraft survived a hail of debris to trap comet dust with a collector mitt packed with aerogel, a porous material made up of mostly air. The cosmic particles were then tucked inside the capsule for the trip home.

Along with the comet dust, the spacecraft also captured interstellar dust — tiny particles that stream through the solar system thought to be from ancient stars that exploded and died.

The spacecraft also beamed back 72 black-and-white pictures showing broad mesas, craters, pinnacles and canyons with flat floors on the surface of Wild 2, a craggy comet about 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) from Earth at Stardust’s launch.

Stardust’s sample return is the latest mission designed to study comets up close.

Six months earlier, NASA sent a probe into the path of an onrushing comet. The high-speed collision with comet Tempel 1 set off a celestial fireworks display in space and exposed the comet’s primordial interior.

Scientists have been analyzing the voluminous debris hurled from the comet’s belly and are trying to figure out the size of the crater caused by the impact.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and


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