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Craft returning to Earth with specks from space
San Francisco Chronicle


January 13, 2006
Friday AM

Pieces of a comet and dust grains from beyond the solar system are headed toward Earth aboard NASA's Stardust spaceship, and if all goes well early Sunday morning, the conical craft should descend at nearly 29,000 mph in a blazing fireball over Utah before making a soft, predawn landing in the desert.

Space agency scientists are preparing to helicopter to the landing site to retrieve the capsule after it has parachuted to the ground. The site is located on an Air Force weapons test range. With luck, touchdown will occur at 10 mph.



After that, the scientists will place the capsule aboard the helicopter and take it to Michael Army Air Field in Dugway, Utah, for initial storage and analysis in a clean room, where there is less risk of outside contaminants ruining the capsule's cargo. Later, they will transfer the capsule to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In January 2004, during its seven-year, 3 billion-mile mission, the robotic Stardust spaceship flew through and captured particles within the extremely thin, halolike atmosphere that enveloped the comet Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt-2").

On two other occasions, lasting several months, the ship captured in slabs of aerogel - so-called solid smoke that it was carrying on board - roughly 45 particles that were passing through our galaxy. Aerogel is an extremely lightweight, translucent material that resembles a solidified block of smoke, hence its nickname.

Assuming the capsule survives its return to Earth, those samples should give scientists unprecedented new information on the origins and evolution of our solar system, which condensed from a primordial cloud of dust and gas almost 5 billion years ago.

The interstellar dust particles could give humans their first good look at primal matter that has been relatively unchanged since it formed outside our solar system tens of millions of years ago.

Atmospheric re-entry is scheduled to begin early Sunday over the northwestern corner of Northern California, just south of the Oregon border. Then the craft will fly east over northern Nevada, where its re-entry is likely to be easiest to see. By that time, its heat shield will have reached its highest temperature, about 37 miles over Carlin, Nev. The re-entering fireball is expected to be pinkish-white and as bright as the planet Venus for about 90 seconds.

University of California scientists plan to play a key role in finding and analyzing the extremely tiny particles that slammed into, and lodged inside, the aerogel slabs during the mission, like fruit flies that get stuck in wet paint on walls.

NASA officials have been nervous about Stardust's re-entry because last year, another probe called Genesis suffered parachute failure on re-entry and crashed. That shook up scientists who had hoped to examine its cargo - particles from the sun. They are still trying to recover useful scientific data from Genesis' remains.

Stardust's flight back to Earth is going smoothly, NASA officials said on their Web site.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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