Stardust a stunning success

Space scientists were celebrating last night after bringing home a capsule of precious cosmic dust from the depths of space.
Nasa’s £120million Stardust probe successfully fired its valuable cargo into the Earth’s atmosphere yesterday at ten times the speed of a bullet – the fastest re-entry ever.
Mission control scientists in California whooped and cheered as the capsule’s main parachute opened 105,000ft over the USA. An hour after it bounced three times to a landing, the capsule was found on its side, intact and undamaged by a helicopter search team in the Utah Desert (see Nasa picture, above).
That confirmed that Stardust’s mission to collect particles of a comet plus other tiny grains from the vast void between the stars had been successful.
It marked the end of the unmanned probe’s seven year, 3billion mile mission through the solar system.
The Stardust probe itself did not enter the atmosphere but travelled on to go into orbit around the sun.
The microscopic particles, captured from a comet’s tail by a tennis-racket sized fly-swat, are thought to hold clues to how the planets formed and life began.
The total amount of dust weighs less than 1,000th of an ounce with many just a hundredth the width of a human hair. But powerful microscopes will make them look like boulders. Excited Nasa scientists tracked the capsule’s descent (see Nasa picture, left) from a DC-8 aircraft. It was swiftly flown to a clean room at the nearby air force base (see Nasa picture, below) before being moved to Nasa’s Johnson Space Center at Houston, Texas. There the precious particles will be sliced up and passed to experts around the world, including the UK, for analysis.
Scientists at the Open University, Natural History Museum, Imperial College London and the University of Kent will be among those examining the dust grains.
Stardust 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 three and half-mile wide core on January 2, 2004, and trapping dust from its tail on gel covering a hi-tech fly-swat.
California University has asked home computer users to help them find the few microscopic particles of interstellar dust by analysing scans of the gel that trapped them.

It sounds a heck of a lot of money to pay for a teaspoonful of dust.
But the £120million Stardust probe’s cargo will unlock secrets of how the planets and life itself formed.
These precious grains are older not only than the Earth but the solar system itself. And unlike the many meteors that occasionally fall to the ground, they are uncontaminated.
A big bonus is that we know exactly where they are from – one particular comet called Wild 2.
Scientists poring over the particles expect to find molecules that form the building blocks of life. They hope also to find iridium – a rare metal dumped here by the cosmic impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65million years ago.
The Earth was bombarded by comets in the early days of the solar system and many believe they brought us the water that produced our oceans.
© Paul Sutherland. Unauthorised reproduction forbidden.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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