Stardust Returns Comet Material to Earth

The sample-return capsule from the Stardust spacecraft landed early this morning in Utah, after gliding through the darkness across the West Coast of the United States. Inside the capsule is valuable cargo: the first cometary and interstellar material to be returned to the Earth for study.

NASA TV covered the landing live while helicopters at the Utah Test and Training Range in western Utah, USA positioned themselves for retrieval in a holding area. As the capsule streaked over Oregon it became the fastest human-made object to descend through the atmosphere, at nearly 29,000 miles per hour (12.8 kilometers per second.) In just seconds it moved out of Oregon and over Nevada and was picked up by infrared ground tracking instruments.

At 10,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, the main parachute deployed, to applause from ground crews. The capsule’s UHF beacon was successfully picked up to help the helicopters with their retrieval. The capsule rapidly decelerated in speed and began drifting to the surface before landing at an estimated 10 miles per hour. Touchdown occurred at approximately 3:10 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. Landing coordinates came immediately and the helicopters quickly began their search in the dark for the capsule.

The search lasted approximately 42 minutes before official confirmation came that the capsule had been located.

Now that the sample-return capsule has landed safely on Earth and been retrieved, it will be transported to Stardust Laboratory at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, USA where the exacting process of retrieving the individual grains from the aerogel tray can begin. A six-month effort of retrieval, documentation and early scientific analysis will be followed by the release of particles to the general science community for further research.

Last year’s Deep Impact mission to Comet Tempel 1 revealed just how little we know about the small bodies of our solar system. Comets might be more “snowy dirtballs” than “dirty snowballs” or they may instead have more variable compositions than previously understood. Images returned of Comet Wild 2 by Stardust during their January 2004 encounter revealed numerous crater-like features that have likely been modified by gas outbursts from the comet.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.