Capsule brings first comet dust to earth
Updated: 2006-01-16 06:54
After a seven-year journey, a NASA space capsule returned safely to Earth on
Sunday with the first dust ever fetched from a comet, a cosmic bounty that
scientists hope will yield clues to how the solar system formed.
The capsule's blazing plunge through the atmosphere lit up parts of the
western sky as it capped a mission in which the Stardust spacecraft swooped past
a comet known as Wild 2.
Ron Ceeders, a
Lockheed Martin technician, unbolts a canister containing comet dust from
the Stardust capsule in a clean room Sunday, Jan. 15, 2006, at Dugway
Proving Ground, Utah. [AP]
"This is not the finish line. This is just the intermediate pit stop," said
project manager Tom Duxbury of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
Calif., which managed the $212 million mission.
About a million comet and interstellar dust particles ¡ª most smaller than the
width of a human hair ¡ª are believed to be inside a sealed canister.
The particles are thought to be pristine leftovers from the birth of the
solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Some samples could be even older than
The next stop for the capsule is the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where
scientists will unlock its canister later this week. After a preliminary
examination, they will ship the particles to laboratories all over the world for
further study to analyze their composition.
"Inside this thing is our treasure," said principal mission scientist Don
Brownlee of the University of Washington.
Stardust's successful return was welcome news to the space agency, which
suffered a setback in 2004 when its Genesis space probe carrying solar wind
atoms crashed into the same Utah salt flats and cracked open after its
parachutes failed to deploy.
After the Genesis mishap, engineers rechecked Stardust's systems. Duxbury
said its return home went "like clockwork."
Early Sunday, the Stardust mothership released the shuttlecock-shaped
capsule, which plunged through the atmosphere at 29,000 mph.