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Alaskans Participating In Stardust Re-entry Campaign


January 14, 2006

The Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, has a professor and graduate student participating in the NASA hypervelocity re-entry campaign for the Stardust sample return capsule.

jpg Stardust, artist's concept

Artist's concept of Stardust's sample return
capsule parachuting down to Earth.
Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Stardust vehicle will release the capsule into Earth's atmosphere at 12:56 a.m. on Sunday, January 15. The capsule, containing interstellar dust from the Wild 2 comet, will re-enter at a whopping 28,600 miles per hour. This re-entry is the fastest in NASA history.

Professor of Geophysics Hans Nielsen and graduate student Takashi Kammae, both of the Geophysical Institute, are monitoring the capsule's ablative heat shield during re-entry. The heat shield has never been flown before, but is designed to absorb the intense heat generated during re-entry into the atmosphere. If it performs well, it's engineering could be replicated for return vehicles that contain crews. Nielsen and Kammae will monitor the heat shield aboard NASA's DC-8 aircraft, an airborne laboratory full of instruments. There, they will observe data collected by a high-speed imager, designed at the Geophysical Institute for auroral research.

"Our whole mission is to look at the engineering of the return capsule," Nielsen said. "This offers an opportunity to observe how the heat shield performs under the specific conditions experienced during re-entry. The performance of the material inside the heat shield cannot be tested in the lab."

If the Stardust return capsule survives re-entry, it will allow scientists to work with comet dust. Cometary particles contain unique chemical and physical information that may reveal the history of the solar system.


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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. - More...
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Ketchikan, Alaska