The first mission to return cometary material to the Earth is now in its final hours of the mission. The Stardust spacecraft, visitor to Asteroid 5535 Annefrank and Comet Wild 2, crossed the orbit of the Moon yesterday morning and successfully deployed the sample-return capsule toward the Earth later that evening. The capsule is expected to streak across the western United States early this morning before landing in the Utah Test and Training Range.
During its close flyby of Comet Wild 2, particles from the dusty coma of the comet impacted Stardust’s aerogel sample collectors. One side of the array was used to collect dust from the comet, while the other side was used to collect interstellar dust. The array was then stored within the sample-return capsule for eventual return to the Earth.
Stardust’s successful collection of dust particles from Comet Wild 2 could lead to a revolution in our understanding of the small bodies in our solar system. Small bodies in our solar system include objects like comets, asteroids, and the Kuiper Belt bodies of which Pluto is a likely member. Theory suggests that these small bodies are pristine remnants from the formation of our solar system that perhaps also played a role in seeding the early Earth with water and organic materials necessary for the development of life.
The cometary and interstellar dust particles captured by Stardust will undergo a variety of tests that can only be performed in advanced laboratories here on the Earth. Stardust itself will fire its thrusters to put it into orbit around the Sun.
Live coverage of the event will be provided by NASA TV.
- Stardust – NASA’s Comet Sample Return Mission
- January 14, 2006 Press Release: NASA/JPL – “NASA’S STARDUST PASSES MOON, JUST HOURS AWAY FROM EARTH RETURN“