January 17, 2006
CORRECTED: Smooth landing for NASA probe carrying comet dust
Please read in 15th paragraph ...any solid material from
beyond the moon... instead of ...any extraterrestrial solid
By Nichola Groom
dust completed a 2.9 billion-mile journey on Sunday, landing
safely in the Utah desert to the relief of NASA scientists who
have waited seven years for the return of particles they hope
will give them clues about the origins of the solar system.
The Stardust mission ended early Sunday when the 100-pound
(45 kg) capsule landed at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and
Training range two minutes ahead of schedule at 3:10 a.m. local
time (5:10 a.m. EST/1010 GMT).
"We have touchdown," Stardust Project Manager Tom Duxbury,
dressed in a navy blue NASA pilot's jumpsuit for the event,
announced to his team seconds after landing.
Television images showed scientists and engineers in the
control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
California, cheering and applauding both at landing and earlier
when the capsule's two parachutes deployed as it roared across
the western United States toward its target.
In 2004, a capsule called Genesis carrying solar ions
crashed to Earth when its parachute failed to deploy, raising
concerns about Stardust's return. The Genesis incident prompted
the Stardust team to spend six months reviewing its
spacecraft's design to make sure there were no errors, and NASA
officials said they were prepared for a hard landing.
Those fears, however, proved unfounded on Sunday as every
step of the capsule's return to Earth went as planned.
"It's most like a proud parent at the graduation of a magna
cum laude student," Ken Atkins, a former Stardust project
manager who is now retired, said of the smooth landing.
RACING BACK TO EARTH
The canister entered the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of
28,860 miles per hour (46,440 km per hour), the fastest of any
man-made object on record. It took just 13 minutes for the
capsule to travel through the atmosphere on its way to the
remote military base.
The descent was visible from the ground in Nevada, NASA
Less than an hour after the landing, three helicopters
retrieved the capsule from the windy and dark desert floor,
helped by infrared and radar tracking devices.
The vessel will be taken to a "cleanroom" at the base
before the particles are shipped to Johnson Space Center in
Houston early next week.
Stardust's mission, which began in 1999, took it around the
sun three times and halfway to Jupiter to catch particles from
comet Wild 2 in January of 2004. The dust was captured by a
tennis-racket-shaped space probe containing ice-cube-sized
compartments lined with aerogel, a porous substance that is
99.9 percent air.
The particles, most of which are expected to be a tenth as
wide as a piece of human hair, became lodged in the aerogel
before being shuttered inside the capsule.
Comets are thought to be leftovers from the process of
planet formation, and scientists hope the dust collected by
Stardust will give them clues about the origins of the solar
system 4.5 billion years ago.
The mission marks the first time since 1972 that any solid
material beyond the moon has been collected and brought back to
Stardust's mother ship, which severed the umbilical cables
between it and the capsule late on Saturday, returned to orbit
around the sun and may be used in future missions to study
planets, asteroids or comets.