Having accomplished its primary objective, Stardust was redirected to a successful encounter with comet Tempel 1 on Feb 14, 2011, with the purpose of examining the crater formed several years earlier on the comet's nucleus by the impactor carried by the Deep Impact probe.
Stardust is the fourth mission in NASA's Discovery Program, following Mars Pathfinder, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) probe, and Lunar Prospector. It represents an international collaboration between NASA and university and industry partners.
The return of StardustAfter a seven-year, 4.6-billion-kilometer (2.8-billion-mile), the Stardust released its 45-kg (110-lb) sample-return capsule at 0557 GMT, Jan. 15, 2006, as it looped past the Earth. Four hours after leaving the probe, the capsule entered Earth's atmosphere 125 km (410,000 ft) over the Pacific Ocean at a speed of 46,660 km/h (29,000 mph) – the fastest Earth atmosphere reentry of any spacecraft. At an altitude of about 32 km (105,000 ft), the capsule released a drogue parachute to slow its descent. The main parachute opened at about 3 km (10,000 ft), and brought the capsule down to land on a military base southwest of Salt Lake City.
The capsule was located by helicopter almost an hour after the landing and then flown to a nearby laboratory for checks. On Jan. 16, it was transported to a special lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center for examination of its precious extraterrestrial cargo.
Preliminary scientific findingsInitial results from analysis of Stardust's aerogel suggest that the particles of captured comet dust contain iron sulfides, glassy material such as crystalline silicates, and an assortment of organic materials. Researchers will want to know which of these organics are genuinely extraterrestrial and which are the result of contamination here on Earth. In the weeks and months ahead, work will be done to analyze the types of carbon found in the samples – not only to trace the organics, but also to determine whether such compounds predated the formation of the solar system.
Stardust@homeA project similar to SETI@home has been set up so that members of the public can use their PCs to help analyze the material brought back by Stardust. Images of the aerogel from the spacecraft will be produced by scanning under ultraviolet light using an automated microscope at a clean room at JSC. More than 1.6 fields of view will be produced and made available for study by people who have registered go through a web-based training session to see if they are suitable for spotting particles in the aerogel. To take part, volunteers need a reasonably up-to-date computer with Netscape or Internet Explorer, patience, and some spare time.
Once located, the particles will be extracted from the gel and analyzed in research labs around the world. As well as the satisfaction of taking part in the space project, volunteers have another incentive – the chance to name any dust grains they find.
Related entry comet and asteroid missions
Related category SATELLITES AND SPACE PROBES
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