Stardust lands in Utah successfully

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

An infrared camera captures a recovery helicopter at the landing site of the Stardust sample return capsule.
An infrared camera captures the Stardust sample return capsule as it descends to the Utah Test and Training Range.
Capsule after landing

"All stations, we have touchdown," an announcer declared.

Stardust, a capsule carrying dust from Comet Wild 2, has landed safely in the Utah desert. It also is the first time in history that a space mission has brought back such material.

"The tiny particles that the Stardust mission is bringing back are the most scientifically exciting and technically challenging material that we have ever had the opportunity to study," said Monica Grady of the Planetary and Space Science Research Institute (PSSRI).

When the landing was complete, it drew cheers from excited scientists.

"It's an absolutely fantastic end to the mission," said Carlton Allen of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

"Everything worked so well. What an exciting moment," said Allan Cheuvront, Stardust spacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Many reports are stating from skywatchers, that sighted the speeding capsule as it shot across the sky over the western United States. "We saw it in the sky…it was great," said Paula Nicholson, Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground.

In 2004, another collector capsule from another spacecraft, Genesis, which collected solar wind particles crashed into the Utah desert, however, the samples did not survive.

After the capsule landed, it activated its locator beacon and helicopter recovery crews successfully located the capsule in the dark. The capsule is reportedly intact from the helicopter observations, and the unofficial touch down time was 5:10 a.m. EST. It will be transferred to a "cleanroom" and is expected to be flown to Johnson Space Center early next week where the capsule will be unlocked for the first time since it landed.

When opened, scientists will find the microscopic dust particles trapped in a porous, pale-blue smokelike material known as aerogel made up of 99.8 percent air that was used to snag the dust in space.

The dust then will be looked at under a microscope to be examined and because this comet is nearly 5 billion years old, they hope it will unlock some of the secrets to the formation of our galaxy and universe.

The capsules speed when it was going through Earth's atmosphere was a record breaking 29,000 mph, making it the fastest man-made probe to return to Earth. Its first parachute opened at nearly 100,000 feet from the ground where it was then guided to a 10-MPH landing in the desert.

The capsule also brought back with it 72 black-and-white pictures showing broad mesas, craters, pinnacles and canyons with flat floors on the surface of Wild 2, which was a staggering 500 million miles from Earth at the time Stardust was launched.

Stardust was launched in 1999 and its trip lasted over 7 years. Stardust traveled about 4.5 billion kilometers (2.88 billion miles), and went around the sun 3 times. In the end, a magnificent achievement for NASA and science in general.

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