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Probe Yields First Comet Samples
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Probe Yields First Comet Samples


Probe Yields First Comet Samples
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. After two days of delays, NASA's New Horizon space probe blasted off today. The unmanned spacecraft is the first ever mission to Pluto, a planet so distant it will be nine years before data starts reaching Earth. Just hours before the launch NASA reported on another mission, which took seven years to complete.

The Stardust spacecraft landed Sunday in Utah after a three billion mile journey to the comet Wild II. Its cargo of cosmic particles is now at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists are ecstatic about what they're seeing. NPR's Howard Berkes has the story.

HOWARD BERKES: Stardust scientists can't believe their good fortune so far. Starting with the break in the weather Sunday as the space capsule drifted to Earth. Peter Tsou of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of Stardust's lead scientists.

PETER TSOU: A homecoming that's almost miraculous. The weather just about a couple hours before, it's all dark and it was snow and rain and it really threatened us. For some reason, must be some divine opening of the window for the few hours, because after they landed safely, then we had a heavy snowstorm.

BERKES: That sense of a miraculous event continued Tuesday when the Stardust sample canister arrived at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The scientists that cracked it open became the first humans ever to peer at comet particles first hand. They included astronomer Don Brownlee of the University of Washington.

DON BROWNLEE: At this point in time, we're absolutely thrilled. It's totally remarkable to have a fully successful mission. Of all the things that can go wrong, either in space or even scientifically, none of the bad things happened and everything really exceeded our wildest expectations.

BERKES: Brownlee says Stardust's collector tray holds perhaps a million particles of comet dust on one side and maybe 200 grains of star dust on the other. There were fears the particles would explode on impact with the collector tray, but the minutely dense gel that captured them appears to have cushioned the collisions.

Study of these particles could help test theories about the origins of the solar system, the planet Earth and life on Earth, suggests Mike Zolensky, of the Johnson Space Center.

MIKE ZOLENSKY: Much of the Earth's water and organics, you know, the molecules in our bodies, perhaps came from comets. So these samples will tell us about basically, where our atoms and molecules came from, and then how they were delivered to Earth, and in what amount, and basically it's like looking at our great-great grandparents.

BERKES: There's solid material to refer to now, as scientists contemplate the origins of life, Earth and the Solar System. Don Brownlee of the University of Washington:

BROWNLEE: For all the ideas and theories that people might have, we have some sort of real ground truth. We have actual samples of materials the solar system was formed from.

BERKES: 160 scientists around the world will do the research. And 65,000 volunteers, average folks with home computers, have signed up to help locate the smallest particles of stardust. NASA will provide images of portions of the collector cells and the volunteers will scrutinize them for particles. The Stardust scientists hope to announce their first scientific findings in a little more than a month. They believe they have enough star and comet dust to keep researchers busy for decades.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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