Stardust is coming home

An unmanned spaceprobe will blaze across night skies on Sunday as it arrives back on Earth from a seven-year, 2.88 billion-mile trip into the depths of the solar system.
The Stardust craft will be the fastest man-made object ever to hit the atmosphere when it plunges towards the ground at nearly 29,000mph.
Excited Nasa scientists plan to track the fireball’s descent from a DC-8 aircraft as it flies home with its precious cargo – thousands of particles of cosmic dust older than the sun and planets.
The microscopic particles, captured from a comet’s tail, are thought to hold clues to how the planets formed and how materials that produced life were distributed.
After its blaze of glory above the Pacific Ocean, Stardust’s re-entry capsule will be slowed 20 miles up by the first of two parachutes to bring it to a soft night landing at an Air Force base near Salt Lake City in the Utah desert.
A helicopter rescue teams will swiftly retrieve the capsule holding the dust. But it will not be opened until it is flown to join the Apollo moon rocks at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Only then, in a room 100 times cleaner than a hospital, will the precious particles be released before slices of them are passed to experts around the world for analysis.
Stardust, which cost £120million, was launched on February 7, 1999, to rendezvous with a 4billion-year-old comet called Wild-2.
It scored a bulls-eye, flying within 150 miles of the comet’s 3.3-mile wide core on January 2, 2004, and trapping dust from its tail on gel covering a hi-tech fly-swat.
Principal investigator Don Brownlee, of the University of Washington, said: “Locked within the cometary particles is unique chemical and physical information that could be the record of the formation of the planets and the materials from which they were made.”

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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