Fresh from its fall to Earth last weekend, the Stardust sample return capsule has been opened in a cleanroom at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“It exceeds all expectations,” said Donald Brownlee, Stardust’s lead scientist from the University of Washington. “It’s a huge success,” he said in a university statement released Wednesday.
“We can see lots of impacts. There are big ones, there are small ones. The big ones you can see from 10 feet away,” Brownlee observed.
A preliminary estimation is that there might be more than a million microscopic specks of dust embedded in Stardust’s aerogel-laden collector. Furthermore, it appears — from the size of the carrot-shaped impact tracks in the aerogel — that there are about 10 particles of 100 microns in size. (A typical human hair is about 100 microns thick.)
The largest is around a millimeter, Brownlee added, and the biggest track is nearly large enough to insert your little finger. In the largest aerogel tracks, investigators can see the black comet dust at the end of the track.
Johnson Space Center will be the curator of the samples collected by Stardust from Comet Wild 2, as well as the interstellar dust particles that Stardust snagged during its nearly seven-year voyage. As many as 150 scientists worldwide are awaiting samples to study.
Scientists and engineers are elated with the outcome of NASA’s Stardust mission, after a 2.9-billion-mile (4.6-billion-kilometer) round-trip space voyage.
The 101-pound (46-kilogram) Stardust capsule returned to Earth early Sunday, slamming into the atmosphere at a blistering 29,000 miles per hour (46,400 kilometers per hour) — the greatest velocity ever attained by any human-made object diving into Earth’s atmosphere on record.
The sample return capsule touched down under parachute on the desert floor of the Utah Test and Training Range. After the capsule’s recovery, a “bank vault-like” canister holding the interstellar and comet samples was removed in Utah for transportation to Johnson Space Center.
Stardust was launched on Feb. 7, 1999. The encounter and cometary dust sample collection at Comet Wild 2 occurred on Jan. 2, 2004 — with the spacecraft flying by the comet at a minimum distance of 149 miles (240 kilometers).
As a NASA Discovery-class mission, Stardust is a $212 million econo-class science project.
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