LIANE HANSEN, host:
The Stardust spacecraft returned gently to Earth in the Utah desert this morning after a seven-year space mission that took it halfway to Jupiter. This is what it sounded like at NASA Mission Control in Pasadena, California, as Stardust touched down.
Unidentified Man: All stations, we have touchdown!
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
HANSEN: That reaction is due in part to the fact that NASA technicians and scientists were not sure Stardust would land safely. On board are samples from a distant comet that could help scientists learn more about the origins of the solar system and life. Joining us to talk about all of that is NPR's Howard Berkes, who monitored the landing at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
Howard, first tell us what you saw of the Stardust landing, and then explain why the scientists on the ground and at Mission Control in Pasadena were really holding their breaths as Stardust approached the Earth.
HOWARD BERKES reporting:
And we were, too, the reporters who are gathered here at Dugway and some scientists who are gathered with us. We're about 40 miles away from where Stardust actually came down, but we could see the red-orange glow of the spacecraft as it came in, and there were cheers here, cheers also closer to where it landed where the recovery crews were gathered and some of the principal scientists were gathered. And they were all nervous because 16 months ago we had a similar kind of mission end here in a very different way with a crash landing, and that was because the parachutes on that Genesis spacecraft failed to open. The device that was supposed to trigger those parachutes had been installed backward. Well, the same kind of device and the same parachute system was on Stardust, so there was some concern that maybe they wouldn't work right. But they did. Both parachutes opened and Stardust did float to the ground safely, and they're out there now recovering the spacecraft. They're going to bring it into a clean room where they'll do a closer inspection of it.
HANSEN: So that cargo--it's microscopic particles of dust from a comet--what might that tell the scientists?
BERKES: Well, these are particles that were gathered from a comet called Wild 2, a billion and a half miles out in space. The Comet Wild 2 and other comets are essentially huge chunks of rock and ice and dust that existed before our solar system was formed, existed before Earth existed or before life existed, and so scientists hope that by looking at these particles that are the most primitive particles in the universe--in our solar system at least--by looking at those closely now over a period of time, they'll be able to maybe get some clues as to how our solar system formed, why water formed on the Earth, how oceans formed, and then how life itself formed on Earth.
HANSEN: And briefly, Howard, what's next for Stardust?
BERKES: Next is to get the capsule to the clean room here at Dugway Proving Ground. They won't open it here. They'll do that at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. They're hoping that in as little as two days they'll be able to take Stardust there and then the studying will begin, and scientists tell us they believe they have decades' worth of particles to study.
HANSEN: NPR's Howard Berkes is at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah close to where the Stardust spacecraft landed earlier this morning.
Thanks a lot, Howard.
BERKES: You're welcome, Liane.
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