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.
The Comet – Up Close.
Phil Bland, a planetary scientist from the Imperial College of London will be one of the first to get his hands on the grains. “It’s so exciting,” he says. “I was three years old when the last Apollo samples came back, and there have been no rocks brought back from space since then.”
Identifying minerals in the grains should reveal which elements were available as building blocks for our Solar System, and what sorts of stars created them. And if researchers find minerals that have been altered by water in the past, it might help to determine whether comets were instrumental in delivering much of the water in Earth’s oceans.
After delivering its sample unit safely to Earth, the Stardust mother ship has been put into orbit around the Sun. NASA officials say they are open to any viable suggestions that could send the craft on another adventure, such as exploring asteroids.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Stardust mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operated the spacecraft.
Also posted at VERMONT SPACE
(That’s a hell of an accomplishment!)