The first dust samples from a comet parachuted safely down to Earth on Sunday, January 15th. The Stardust mission's capsule left a bright streak of light in the night sky as it ripped through the atmosphere at almost 29,000 miles per hour (~46,000 kph). The capsule opened a series of parachutes to slow its descent, and then touched down in the desert at 2:10 AM local time.
The dust inside the spacecraft is the first geological sample returned from space since the manned moon flights of the early 1970s. Stardust's round trip to the comet Wild-2 took seven years, and its close encounter in January 2004 provided the best pictures of a comet ever taken, and revealed a surface pockmarked by craters and a surprisingly rigid core.
Approaching to within 150 miles of the comet's surface, the craft detected organic molecules in the particles drifting from Wild-2. During this encounter, it deployed a soft, lightweight material called aerogel. Drifting through the halo of dust and gas surrounding the comet's tail allowed this collector to gather samples for analysis back on Earth.
"I have been waiting for this day since the early 1980s when Deputy Principal Investigator Dr. Peter Tsou of JPL and I designed a mission to collect comet dust," said Dr. Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator from the University of Washington, Seattle. "To see the capsule safely back on its home planet is a thrilling accomplishment."
The capsule, resting on desert sands.
What Next For The Dust?
The sample material will be shipped to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There it will be divided into minute crumbs and sent to over 175 different science laboratories around the world. A wide range of analysis will be performed to glean the secrets from this unprecedented sample of a comet's tail.