Thursday, January 26, 2006

The US space probe "Stardust" has returned to Earth carrying precious samples of dust from stars and comets, which scientists believe could offer vital clues about the origins of our solar system, NASA television showed. After a seven-year journey, a capsule weighing 46 kilograms (101 pounds) and carrying a teaspoonful of space dust landed in a Utah desert at 0957 GMT Sunday, January 15, after flying 4.63 billion kilometers (2.88 billion miles) in space, or 10,000 times more than the distance separating Earth from the Moon.

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 99.9 percent air. The samples were collected during the first attempt to gather, beyond the Moon, space particles that date back to before our solar system was born, or about 4.5 billion years ago.

Now, after reading this section of a recent news article, you have to either shrug with disbelief or shudder with excitment. A 100-pound capsule sailing 2.88 billion miles in seven years, collecting space dust that dates back over 4 billion years ago. It's as if the article was extracted from a science fiction story set two centuries into the future... but it's non-fiction... and it's happening today.

In a time where we are surrounded by worldwide plagues of social and economic problems, we also find ourselves, my friend, living in very exciting and ingenious times. To launch a rocket to the Moon and have it return safely to Earth still amazes me. But to send a metal capsule into the deep reaches of space (10,000 times further than the Earth to the Moon) and have it return on schedule seven years later - that just blows my mind. And it was fellow human beings that dreamt, planned, pondered and pursued this goal... and it was achieved.

Anthropologist and humanitarian Margaret Mead stated quite some time ago, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Regardless of geographic or political boundaries, it is amazing what humankind can accomplish when it works collectively. We can build international space stations today that were just pipedreams when I was a child. We can now connect a world with the use of satellites where just decades ago, telelphone cable would have to suffice. We are on the cusp of a grand millennium, my friend, and technology is inviting us to and providing us the means to connect with one another more closely.

Folklore states that in order to fly, a person must be sprinkled with either pixie dust or star dust. Appropriately named, this capsule Stardust may very well sprinkle us with a greater understanding of our galactic neighborhood and a greater appreciation for all Life. And it will be then that we soar.


POST NOTE: In case you have any desire to read the remainder of the Stardust mission, see this news article that posted in the Los Angeles newspapers the week of February 16:

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

"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 toward 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.

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 "cleanroom" at the base before the particles are shipped to Johnson Space Center in Houston early next week.

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.