LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A space capsule loaded with comet dust completed a 2.9 billion-mile journey on Sunday, landing safely in the Utah desert to the relief of NASA scientists who have waited seven years for the return of particles they hope will give them clues about the origins of the solar system.
The Stardust mission ended early Sunday when the 100-pound (45 kg) capsule landed at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training range two minutes ahead of schedule at 3:10 a.m.local time (10:10 a.m. British time).
“We have touchdown,”Stardust Project Manager Tom Duxbury, dressed in a navy blue NASA pilot’s jumpsuit for the event, announced to his team seconds after landing.
Television images showed scientists and engineers in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,California, cheering and applauding both at landing and earlier when the capsule’s two parachutes deployed as it roared across the western united States towards its target.
In 2004, a capsule called Genesis carrying solar ions crashed to Earth when its parachute failed to deploy, raising concerns about Stardust’s return. The Genesis incident prompted the Stardust team to spend six months reviewing its spacecraft’s design to make sure there were no errors, and NASA officials said they were prepared for a hard landing.
Those fears, however, proved unfounded on Sunday as every step of the capsule’s return to Earth went as planned.
“It’s most like a proud parent at the graduation of a magna cum laude student,” Ken Atkins, a former Stardust project manager who is now retired, said of the smooth landing.
RACING BACK TO EARTH
The canister entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 28,860 miles per hour (46,440 km per hour), the fastest of any man-made object on record. It took just 13 minutes for the capsule to travel through the atmosphere on its way to the remote military base.
The descent was visible from the ground in Nevada, NASA officials said.
Less than an hour after the landing, three helicopters retrieved the capsule from the windy and dark desert floor, helped by infrared and radar tracking devices.
The vessel will be taken to a “clean room” at the base before the particles are shipped to Johnson Space Center in Houston early next week.
Stardust’s mission, which began in 1999,took it around the sun three times and halfway to Jupiter to catch particles from comet Wild 2 in January of 2004. The dust was captured by a tennis-racket-shaped space probe containing ice-cube-sized compartments lined with aerogel, a porous substance that is 99.9percent air.
The particles, most of which are expected to be a tenth as wide as a piece of human hair, became lodged in the aerogel before being shuttered inside the capsule.
Comets are thought to be leftovers from the process of planet formation, and scientists hope the dust collected by Stardust will give them clues about the origins of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
The mission marks the first time since 1972 that any extraterrestrial solid material has been collected and brought back to Earth.
Stardust’s mother ship,which severed the umbilical cables between it and the capsule late on Saturday, returned to orbit around the sun and may be used in future missions to study planets, asteroids or comets.