Carrying cometary and interstellar particles, NASA's Stardust sample return mission returned safely to Earth touching down at 2:10 a.m. Pacific time in the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range.
According to NASA:
Stardust released its sample return capsule at 9:57 p.m. Pacific time last night. The capsule entered the atmosphere four hours later at 1:57 a.m. Pacific time. The drogue and main parachutes deployed at 2:00 and 2:05 a.m. Pacific time, respectively.
The sample return capsule's science canister and its cargo of comet and interstellar dust particles will be transferred to the Johnson Space Center, Houston, where it will be opened.
Launched in 1999, The Stardust mission traveled 2.88 billion miles during its seven-year round-trip odyssey which included a 2004 encounter with comet Wild 2.
Scientists hope that the million or so microscopic particles returned by Stardust will provide information about what the Solar System was like when it formed 4.6 billion years ago.
Dr. Simon Green of the Planetary and Space Science Research Institute told the BBC, "Stardust could provide a new window into the distant past:"
Because these particles have come from inside a comet, we know that essentially the particles haven't been heated since they became part of the comet, because the comet is made of ice.
That means that they contain information about the conditions that were present when they were incorporated into the comet.
That time was four-and-a-half thousand-million years ago, back when the Solar System formed; so what we hope to know from these particles is essentially what the Solar System looked like at that time, and essentially what we're all made of.
The Stardust sample return capsule being prepared for transportation to the Johnson Space Center. Image credits: NASA
"We are Stardust..."
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