Stardust Returns, Comet Dust in Tow

The unmanned space capsule, Stardust, returned safely to earth Sunday, seven years after beginning its 3 billion mile journey in space. Two years ago, Stardust visited a comet. It now brings back particles from it that are older than the solar system itself.

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Debbie Elliott is away.

The unmanned space capsule Stardust returned safely to Earth today, seven years after beginning its three-billion-mile journey in space. Two years ago, Stardust visited a comet and today brought back particles from it that are older than the solar system itself. NPR's Howard Berkes is at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where the capsule was taken after landing.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Getting the Stardust space capsule to the ground safely seemed to be a gut-wrenching experience for the engineers and scientists responsible. They knew that a similar mission ended with a crash landing here 16 months ago. Listen to the relief at NASA Mission Control in Pasadena, California, when the main Stardust parachute opened this morning.

(Soundbite of Mission Control activity)

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, we've got confirmation of the main chutes (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: Confirmation. Confirmation. OK.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Unidentified Man #2: All stations, the main chute is open. We're coming down slowly.

BERKES: Some reporters and scientists were watching NASA TV screens here at Dugway Proving Ground when Stardust finally settled gently to Earth about 40 miles away. Carlton Allen of the Johnson Space Center was among them.

Mr. CARLTON ALLEN (Johnson Space Center): All right! We are on the ground! Fabulous. Just fabulous. Now we just gotta go out, pick it up and bring it back to the lab and start doing science.

Unidentified Man #3: Houston, we have touchdown!

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

BERKES: Allen is the curator of NASA's collection of extraterrestrial objects, including moon rocks, bits of asteroids and now dust particles from a comet named Wild 2.

Mr. ALLEN: This tells us about the beginnings of the solar system. Comets are the oldest things that we know of. These comet samples are going to tell us about the deep solar system and very deep time. That was the purpose of this mission, and it looks like it has succeeded fantastically.

BERKES: Stardust combed the exterior cloud of the comet with a collector device that looks like a cross between a tennis racket and an ice cube tray--make that Jell-O cubes, or at least a gelatinlike substance so minutely dense that it captures microscopic particles of comets and stars passing through it. Scientists hope they have a million particles and decades of study ahead. The research is led by Don Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington

Mr. DON BROWNLEE (University of Washington): You know, we did this mission to collect the most primitive materials we could in the solar system. I mean, we went to a comet that formed at the edge of the solar system, and it was well-preserved. It had formed far from the sun under very cold conditions, and we're confident that it was made out of the initial building blocks of our solar system. We have always stressed in this mission that we are Stardust because our planet and even ourselves have a direct relation to the particles we brought back this morning.

BERKES: Studying those particles, Brownlee believes, will reveal new information about how the planets formed, how water and carbon ended up on Earth and how life sprung out of that. Stardust may have another legacy, this one back in space. The mother ship that carried the Stardust capsule halfway to Jupiter and three times around the sun is still useful, says Stardust project manager Tom Duxbury.

Mr. TOM DUXBURY (Project Manager, Stardust): Our mighty little spacecraft is still out there. Well, this thing still is alive and well, and it may have a future life as well.

BERKES: Not to collect cosmic dust--it doesn't have those special collectors anymore--but it can be maneuvered from the ground and can be sent to other comets and asteroids to take photographs, count dust particles and conduct chemical analysis. That's in the future. Today, technicians prepare the Stardust canister for shipment to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, as early as Tuesday, scientists will get their first peek of particles of dust older perhaps than life itself. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.

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