Welcome home, Stardust!
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: January 15, 2006
Updated: 11:20 a.m. adding quotes and details from news conference
Wrapping up a seven-year, 2.9-billion-mile space odyssey, NASA's Stardust comet sample return vehicle plunged back to Earth early Sunday, slamming into the atmosphere above the western United States at nearly 30,000 mph and putting on a spectacular sky show before floating to a gentle, parachute landing in Utah.
Tracking sensors did not initially indicate a successful deployment of the craft's stabilizing drogue parachute, raising fears of a repeat of the 2004 crash of a similar spacecraft carrying samples of the solar wind.
But the small parachute did, in fact, deploy on time and the Stardust main parachute unfurled as planned about 10,000 feet above the Utah Test and Training Range, sparking wild cheers and applause among flight controllers as the craft's rate of descent abruptly slowed.
"Appears to be under a good chute," a controller said over NASA's audio loop. "All stations, main chute is open, we're coming down slowly," project manager Tom Duxbury told the team.
A few moments later, the ground team picked up a UHF locator beacon broadcast from the descending craft and at 5:10 a.m., radar indicated touchdown on the UTTR salt flats.
"All stations, we have touchdown," Duxbury said, prompting another round of cheers back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
A helicopter recovery team at the landing site immediately took off and began searching for the capsule. Buffeted by brisk winds, the craft drifted several miles north of its entry ground track while descending under the main parachute and the searchers did not immediately spot it in the pre-dawn darkness.
But finally, at 5:54 a.m., the craft was located, prompting yet another round of cheers and applause.
"All stations, we can report (the search team) has located the capsule,"
"It's hard to describe what it feels like to be at this point of the mission," principal investigator Don Brownlee told reporters later. "We travelled almost three billion miles in space. We visited a comet, grabbed a piece of it and it landed here this morning. It's an incredible thrill."
Said Duxbury: "This thing went like clockwork. We released this capsule from our spacecraft and it hit the atmosphere exactly on time. ... We were counting down three, two, one, zero, when the drogue chute was supposed to come out.... when we saw that drogue chute open, we knew we were home safe."
Brownlee and a few colleagues ran outside during the long-awaited re-entry on the off chance the spacecraft might be visible in the night sky.
"We did this mission to collect the most primitive materials we could in the solar system," he said. "We went to a comet that formed at the edge of the solar system, it's the same class of body as the planet Pluto except it was smaller and it was well preserved. It formed far from the sun under very cold conditions and we're confident that it was made out of the initial building blocks of our solar system.
"We have always stressed in this mission that we are star dust because our planet and even ourselves have a direct relation to the kind of particles we brought back this morning. But I have to say, the most spectacular part of this entire mission for me was five minutes before (landing)."
Standing in the darkness, Brownlee kept looking at his watch hoping to catch a glimpse of his spacecraft.
"We weren't quite sure how bright it was going to be and some people didn't think we would see anything," he said. "Then I saw something up there. I thought, there's Mars! But I knew it wasn't in the right part of the sky. It looked like Mars and it was twinkling a little bit, getting a little brighter, and moving. I thought, maybe that's a helicopter. But it kept getting brighter and brighter and brighter. It was a reddish color, it looked like a torch. ... Even though it was coming down from space, in our view from the ground, it was actually climbing in the sky. It was a meteor getting bright and brighter and brighter."
The sky show lasted for about a half minute. The returning spacecraft sported "a long trail behind it, this bright, luminous climbing thing with this glowing trail behind it," Brownlee said. "It's ironic, you have a comet mission that ends producing a comet. It was just an absolute thrill to see this.
"Now inside this thing is our treasure, our sample of the edge of the solar system that truly contains star dust, the building blocks of the solar system, this little 32-inch capsule, which is being heated to thousands of degrees on the outside coming through the atmosphere at 29,000 miles an hour. And then it lands in this wonderful place, the Utah Test and Training Range in the great Salt Lake desert. It was a real thrill."
The Stardust probe began its seven-your voyage Feb. 7, 1999, with a flawless launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket.
The target of the mission was comet Wild 2, which spent virtually its entire life in the outer solar system. In 1974, however, the comet made a close flyby of Jupiter, which deflected it into a different orbit that has since carried it around the sun only a handful of times. Compared to other short-period comets, Wild-2 is believed to be relatively pristine, providing an unprecedented window on the birth of the solar system.
After a velocity-boosting Earth flyby in 2001, Stardust finally caught up with the comet on Jan. 2, 2004. Just before closest approach, a two-sided 14-inch-wide dust collector shaped like a tennis racket was extended into the dust stream surrounding the comet. Cells on the back side of collector were used earlier in the flight to collect interstellar dust grains.
Along with successfully collecting samples, the spacecraft's navigation camera snapped 72 photos of Wild-2's frozen nucleus as the spacecraft made its final approach.
The goal of the ambitious mission is to answer long-standing questions about the cloud of dusty debris that coalesced to form the solar system and whether comets helped seed planet Earth with water and the organic building blocks of life.
"The science that's going to come out of this, that's going to tell us about the early formation of our solar system, the role that comets have played in the formation of Earth and ourselves, that will unfold over the next few years," Duxbury told reporters earlier. "The science that this project is returning will be unprecedented."
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