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Launch: Feb. 7, 1999
Comet flyby: Jan. 2, 2004
Landing: Jan. 15, 2006
Capsule release: 12:57 a.m. EST (0557 GMT)
Atmospheric entry: 4:57 a.m. EST (0957 GMT)
Main chute deploy: 5:05 a.m. EST (1005 GMT)
Touchdown: 5:12 a.m. EST (1012 GMT)
Site: Utah Test and Training Range

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Stardust return preview
NASA's Stardust spacecraft encountered Comet Wild 2 two years ago, gathering samples of cometary dust for return to Earth. In this Dec. 21 news conference, mission officials and scientists detail the probe's homecoming and planned landing in Utah scheduled for January 15, 2006.

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NASA through the decades
This film looks at the highlights in NASA's history from its creation in the 1950s, through the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, birth of the space shuttle and the loss of Challenger, launch of Hubble and much more.

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STS-49: Satellite rescue
If at first you don't succeed, keep on trying. That is what the astronauts of space shuttle Endeavour's maiden voyage did in their difficult job of rescuing a wayward communications satellite. Spacewalkers were unable to retrieve the Intelsat 603 spacecraft, which had been stranded in a useless orbit, during multiple attempts using a special capture bar. So the crew changed course and staged the first-ever three-man spacewalk to grab the satellite by hand. The STS-49 astronauts describe the mission and narrate highlights in this post-flight presentation.

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First satellite repair
The mission for the crew of space shuttle Challenger's April 1984 flight was two-fold -- deploy the experiment-laden Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) and then track down the crippled Solar Max spacecraft, capture it and perform repairs during spacewalks. Initial attempts by the astronauts to grab the craft while wearing the Manned Maneuvering Unit spacewalk backpacks failed, but the crew ultimately retrieved Solar Max and installed fresh equipment while it was anchored in the payload bay. The crew narrates this post-flight presentation of home movies and highlights from mission STS-41C.

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STS-26: Back in space
The space shuttle program was grounded for 32 months in the painful wake of the 1986 Challenger accident. Americans finally returned to space in September 1988 when shuttle Discovery safely launched for its mission to deploy a NASA communications satellite. Enjoy this post-flight presentation narrated by the astronauts as they show movies and tell the story of the STS-26 mission.

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Amazing STS-51I flight
Imagine a space shuttle mission in which the astronaut crew launched two commercial and one military communications spacecraft, then conducted a pair of incredible spacewalks to recover, fix and redeploy a satellite that malfunctioned just four months earlier. The rescue mission was a success, starting with an astronaut making a catch of the spinning satellite with just his gloved-hand. Enjoy this post-flight presentation narrated by the astronauts as they tell the story of shuttle Discovery's August 1985 mission known as STS-51I.

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Discovery's debut
In our continuing look back at the classic days of the space shuttle program, today we show the STS-41D post-flight presentation by the mission's astronauts. The crew narrates this film of home movies and mission highlights from space shuttle Discovery's maiden voyage in August 1984. STS-41D deployed a remarkable three communications satellites -- a new record high -- from Discovery's payload bay, extended and tested a 100-foot solar array wing and even knocked free an icicle from the shuttle's side using the robot arm.

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"Ride of Your Life"
As the title aptly describes, this movie straps you aboard the flight deck for the thunderous liftoff, the re-entry and safe landing of a space shuttle mission. The movie features the rarely heard intercom communications between the crewmembers, including pilot Jim Halsell assisting commander Bob Cabana during the landing.

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Message from Apollo 8
On Christmas Eve in 1968, a live television broadcast from Apollo 8 offered this message of hope to the people of Earth. The famous transmission occurred as the astronauts orbited the Moon.

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Follow the return to Earth of NASA's Stardust spacecraft with the first samples collected from a comet.

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1203 GMT (7:03 a.m. EST)

The helicopter just touched down at Michael Army Air Field for delivery of the Stardust capsule to its cleanroom for opening.

NASA plans a Stardust post-landing news conference from Utah at 9 a.m. EST.

1147 GMT (6:47 a.m. EST)

The capsule is now flying aboard the chopper to the cleanroom.

1143 GMT (6:43 a.m. EST)

The helicopter that will ferry the capsule from the landing site to the cleanroom is now in place for loading.

1121 GMT (6:21 a.m. EST)

The capsule appears to have bounced three times before coming to rest on its side, the recovery forces report.

1115 GMT (6:15 a.m. EST)

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 before floating to a gentle parachute touchdown in Utah. Read our full story.

1100 GMT (6:00 a.m. EST)

The team from the first chopper performs an initial inspection of the capsule and determines if there's any unexploded ordnance on the ground, since this is a military test range. Once the second helicopter arrives, the recovery forces will check capsule's structural integrity, document its condition with a series of photographs and take gas samples.

Later this morning the capsule will be flown to the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

1058 GMT (5:58 a.m. EST)

The second helicopter is now en route from its holding point to the capsule landing site.

1054 GMT (5:54 a.m. EST)

The capsule has been found!

1048 GMT (5:48 a.m. EST)

The lead helicopter has landed to examine the area. The parachute appears to have been found. It was supposed to be cut free after the capsule touched down.

1044 GMT (5:44 a.m. EST)

The chopper crew reports it may have found the capsule.

1034 GMT (5:34 a.m. EST)

The search for the capsule in the nighttime darkness continues. The lead chopper says the beacon signal is intermittent.

1028 GMT (5:28 a.m. EST)

The beacon signal from the capsule is now being detected by the lead helicopter that still searching for the landing site.

1018 GMT (5:18 a.m. EST)

The first chopper is en route to locate the capsule.

1012 GMT (5:12 a.m. EST)

Coordinates of the landing site are being relayed to the recovery helicopters.

1010 GMT (5:10 a.m. EST)

TOUCHDOWN! The 7-year voyage of NASA's Stardust mission to retrieve pristine samples of a comet has returned to Earth, parachuting to the ground in Utah after a 2.88 billion mile journey through the solar system.

1009 GMT (5:09 a.m. EST)

About 90 seconds to touchdown is the latest projection from Mission Control.

1008 GMT (5:08 a.m. EST)

Altitude is now 6,000 feet.

1008 GMT (5:08 a.m. EST)

The capsule's UHF locator beacon is active and being tracked by the ground recovery forces.

1006 GMT (5:06 a.m. EST)

It appears the information from the tracking forces implying a problem with the drogue chute was wrong.

1005 GMT (5:05 a.m. EST)

Mission Control has announced main chute deploy! This 27-foot chute is supposed to slow the capsule to a gentle touchdown.

1004 GMT (5:04 a.m. EST)

Altitude 15,000 feet.

1003 GMT (5:03 a.m. EST)

Altitude now 26,000 feet. Some deceleration being reported now.

1002 GMT (5:02 a.m. EST)

The capsule is following the proper track, controllers say.

1001 GMT (5:01 a.m. EST)

The drogue was supposed to control the capsule down to 10,000 feet before the main chute came out to slow descent to touchdown at 10 mph.

1001 GMT (5:01 a.m. EST)

Capsule falling through 40,000 feet.

1000 GMT (5:00 a.m. EST)

Altitude is now 60,000 feet. No chute is observed or slowing of the capsule's speed.

1000 GMT (5:00 a.m. EST)

Ground tracking says they do not visually see the drogue chute.

0959 GMT (4:59 a.m. EST)

The drogue chute has deployed, Mission Control says. The capsule has survived the period of maximum heating.

0957 GMT (4:57 a.m. EST)

A ground infrared tracking camera has spotted the capsule. The hot glow of the capsule during entry is clearly seen.

0957 GMT (4:57 a.m. EST)

Entry interface. The Stardust sample return capsule is hitting the upper fringes of Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 400,000 feet. Time to touchdown is now 15 minutes.

0950 GMT (4:50 a.m. EST)

Now seven minutes away from the capsule entering into the atmosphere.

0935 GMT (4:35 a.m. EST)

The three recovery helicopters have taken off to travel from a staging area to a safe distance outside the landing zone. Once the capsule parachutes to the ground and the touchdown point is determined by tracking, the recovery forces will reach the site to begin safing activities. The capsule will be flown by a chopper to a nearby military facility.

0558 GMT (12:58 a.m. EST)

CAPSULE RELEASE! The descent capsule carrying the samples of Comet Wild 2 has been deployed from the Stardust spacecraft to begin its four-hour solo free flight back to Earth. There is no turning back now, the capsule has been committed to landing at 5:12 a.m. EST (1012 GMT) today.

A large cheer erupted among controllers monitoring the spacecraft from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory when confirmation was received of capsule release.

The separation was performed by severing the umbilicals connecting the capsule and mothership and firing apart three retention bolts. A mechanism gave the capsule a push away and imparting a spin designed to help keep the capsule's orientation stabilized during the cruise to re-entry.

The capsule weighs about 100 pounds and is covered with heat-protection materials to shield the precious comet grains packed inside during atmospheric entry.

Time to touchdown now stands at four hours and 14 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Stardust mothership will be firing its thrusters in a little while for a make-or-break maneuver to avoid following the capsule into the atmosphere. The mothership's divert maneuver will keep the spacecraft in orbit around the Sun for possible future mission concepts that scientists are considering. The craft is equipped with cameras and instruments that could be put to use again in the coming years.

0548 GMT (12:48 a.m. EST)

Mission Control is "go" for release of the sample return capsule from the Stardust mothership just under 10 minutes from now. The capsule will enter the atmosphere and make a landing in Utah later this morning.

1830 GMT (1:30 p.m. EST)

The Stardust spacecraft is now closer to Earth than the moon. The probe crossed the moon's orbit about an hour ago.

It took Apollo astronauts three days to make the comparable 249,000-mile trek but Stardust's comet sample capsule will do it in just 16 hours and 27 minutes.

"Our entire flight and recovery team will be watching this final leg of our flight with tremendous expectation as we implement a precise celestial ballet in delivering our capsule to Earth," said Stardust Project Manager Tom Duxbury of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We feel like parents awaiting the return of a child who left us young and innocent, who now returns holding answers to the most profound questions of our solar system."

The final trajectory maneuver was completed by Stardust at 11:53 p.m. EST last night to align the flight path for the landing zone on the Utah Test and Training Range. The engine burn lasted 58.5 seconds and changed the spacecraft's velocity by 2.9 mph. At the time of the burn the spacecraft was about 439,000 miles from Earth, NASA officials said.

1800 GMT (1:00 p.m. EST)

Blasted by icy particles striking at 4 miles per second - six times faster than a rifle bullet - NASA's armored Stardust probe flew within 143 miles of comet Wild 2 in January 2004, capturing primordial debris left over from the very birth of the solar system.

If all goes well, that priceless cargo finally will be delivered to Earth early Sunday to wrap up a marathon seven-year, 2.9-billion-mile mission, lighting up the western sky as the Stardust re-entry capsule plunges into the atmosphere at a record 28,860 mph.

"We went 2.88 billion miles in our journeys," said principal investigator Don Brownlee of the University of Washington at Seattle. "In our seven-year journey, we actually went back 4.5 billion years in time to gather these primitive samples that were just released from a comet nucleus."

Read our complete landing preview story here.


The Stardust landing capsule should be visible when it plunges into the atmosphere early Sunday, appearing as a bright star streaking across the predawn sky toward landing in Utah.

The event will be relatively quick. The capsule enters the atmosphere over northwestern California at 0957 GMT and lands in Utah just 15 minutes later.

Maps of the craft's descent path are available from NASA here and here.

The best spots for viewing the re-entry will be along Highway 80 between Carlin and Elko, Nevada, and further east to the Utah border, NASA scientists predict. The peak brightness will decrease further from Carlin, lessening to about the brightness of Venus (+0 magnitude) when seen from Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City.

"As the observer sees the approaching capsule, it will appear as a point of light," said Peter Jenniskens, principal investigator of the Stardust Sample Return Capsule Re-entry Observing Campaign.

"After it passes the observer, the back of the capsule will be less bright, and it will quickly fade. Each observer will have a different experience."


With its precious cargo of comet bits nestled inside, NASA's Stardust spacecraft is soaring inbound for Sunday's fiery descent and landing in Utah that will cap a 2.88-billion mile voyage spanning 7 years of looping around the solar system.

The armored space probe raced past Comet Wild 2 in January 2004, catching particles with its tennis-racket-shaped collector. The samples were stowed in a protective capsule that will separate from the spacecraft and return to Earth to the delight of anxious scientists.

Bringing pieces of a comet to ground laboratories will allow researchers to examine primitive materials billions of years old. As ancient relics serving as frozen time capsules, comets offer a window to a time when the planets were forming.

"Comets are some of the most informative occupants of the solar system," said Mary Cleave, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

"Locked within the cometary particles is unique chemical and physical information that could be the record of the formation of the planets and the materials from which they were made," added Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Stardust is scheduled to conduct its final course-correcting maneuver at 11:53 p.m. EST Friday to tweak the flight path for Earth. The craft must be aimed precisely when it releases the powerless descent capsule at 12:57 a.m. EST Sunday. The capsule has no means of propulsion and relies solely on the mothership firing it in the proper direction to enter the atmosphere a few hours later.

The separation happens 68,805 miles from Earth. Two cable cutters sever the umbilicals connecting the capsule and mothership, then three bolts break apart. A mechanism gives the capsule a push away while imparting a 14 to 16 revolution per minute spin. That spin is designed to help keep the capsule's orientation stabilized during its free flight.

The mothership performs a divert maneuver about 15 minutes after the separation event to continue flying in orbit around the Sun. Scientists are looking at ways of reusing the instrument-laden craft for future missions.

The sample return capsule enters Earth's atmosphere with a velocity of 28,860 miles per hour, making it the fastest of any human-made object. It will surpass the record set in May 1969 during the return of the Apollo 10 command module of 24,861 mph.

The point of atmospheric entry occurs at 4:57 a.m. EST about 78 miles (400,000 feet) over northwestern California -- 12 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and 14 miles south of the Oregon-California border -- roughly 550 miles uprange from the landing zone.

The region of maximum heating on the capsule's thermal shield happens 52 seconds into the re-entry at an altitude of 38 miles. The heat shield will feel an amazingly intense temperature of 4,900 degrees F.

About 62 seconds into the atmospheric descent, peak deceleration occurs at 38 times the force of gravity.

The deceleration will decrease to 3 G's at entry plus one minute and 56 seconds, triggering an onboard timer. The capsule's avionics then issue the command for firing the mortar to deploy the drogue parachute at entry plus two minutes and 12 seconds. The capsule will be traveling at mach 1.4 and 20 miles overhead the landing area when the drogue chute is unfurled.

Just three minutes after slamming into the atmosphere, the falling capsule will be 15 miles above the ground and making a vertical descent.

The capsule moves within controlled airspace a minute later when it is 11 miles up.

The main parachute is deployed nearly two miles over the landing zone at 5:05 a.m. EST. This is done by cutting one of the lines holding the drogue chute, which pulls out the main chute.

The main chute's bridle holds a UHF locator beacon that is activated at deploy to assist ground teams in locating the capsule.

The 10 mph touchdown at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake City, is expected at 5:12 a.m. EST. The landing area is 27 by 47 miles.

"There's a lot at stake. You just hope everything works, and I am confident it will work," said Brownlee.

"But the really big part of the research is just getting ready to start, when the material goes to the laboratory. The train is headed for the station and we're all waiting for it."

Recovery crews will move the 95-pound capsule via helicopter to the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, for initial processing. The comet samples then head to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for curation.

Scientists say tens of thousands of comet grains have been snared by the spacecraft's collector. Stardust flew by Comet Wild 2 on January 2, 2004, passing only 149 miles from the nucleus at closest approach.

The backside of the collector was used earlier in the Stardust mission, which launched atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral in February 1999, to pick up about 100 bits of interstellar dust grains streaming from other stars in the galaxy.

The collector used an exotic material called aerogel to trap the cometary particles impacting at speeds over five times that of a rifle bullet without damaging them. Aerogel is 99.9 percent air and 0.1 percent silica dioxide. One thousand times less dense than glass, aerogel is like "solid smoke."

The Comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt 2) was discovered in 1978. Its solar orbit extended from Jupiter to beyond Uranus before 1974. But then, Jupiter's gravity altered Wild 2's course, bringing it just beyond the orbit of Mars. It now orbits the Sun once every 6.39 years.

Since Wild 2 only recently began orbiting close to the Sun, scientists believe our star's heat hasn't had enough time to damage the frozen evidence preserved inside the comet for billions of years while lurking in deep space.

"Virtually all the atoms in our bodies were in little grains like the ones we're bringing back from the comet, before the Earth and Sun were formed," Brownlee said. "Those grains carry elements like carbon, nitrogen and silicon from one place to another within our galaxy, and they helped form the Sun, the planets and their moons."

"Some of the grains are likely to have exotic isotopic ratios that will give us an indication that we're looking at materials that aren't as old as the solar system, but that are, in fact, older than the solar system," said Scott Sandford, an astrophysicist and Stardust mission co-investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Scientists will spend the next six months determining exactly what Stardust captured and documenting the samples before the larger research community will get its hands on the treasure.

"My guess is people will be asking for and working on these samples for decades to come," Sandford said.

Watch this page for live updates on Sunday morning.

Copyright 2006, all rights reserved.

Read our earlier Mission Status Center coverage.



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