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Spacecraft Carrying Strange Material Lands in Utah Desert


LOS ANGELES, Jan. 12 (Xinhuanet)-- A U.S. capsule carrying dust sample of a faraway comet that is expected to provide clues about the nature of the building blocks of our solar system, is returning to the Earth seven years after its launch.

Mission scientists and officials of U.S. space agency NASA said on Thursday that the 50-kg capsule was set to be released by the Stardust spacecraft to land on the Utah desert in the early morning on Jan. 15. Then the capsule will be sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

The recovery, if successful, will mark the finale of a 7-year journey, said Don Brownlee, the principal investigator for the Stardust project.

"In its seven years of journey, the spacecraft flew 2.88 billion miles (4 billion km), 3 loops of the Sun," he said in a telephone briefing, adding that the journey was "across the 4.5-billion-year history of our solar system."

"Now we are nearing the end of quite a fantastic voyage," said Brownlee.

Scientists believe in-depth terrestrial analysis of cometary samples will reveal much not just about comets but about the earliest history of the solar system.

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.

Stardust, the first NASA spacecraft dedicated solely to the exploration of a comet, was designed to collect samples on Wild 2,a comet that scientists believe to be newly trapped by our solar system.

The spacecraft was launched on Feb. 7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The primary goal of Stardust, collecting dust and carbon-based samples during its closest encounter with the comet, was fulfilled as scheduled in January 2004, after nearly four years of space travel.

In order to meet up with Comet Wild 2, the spacecraft made three loops around the Sun. On the second loop, its trajectory intersected the comet.

During this meeting, Stardust performed a variety of tasks, including reporting counts of comet particles encountered by the spacecraft with the Dust Flux Monitor, and real-time analyses of the compositions of these particles and volatiles taken by the Comet and Interstellar Dust Analyzer.

Using a substance called aerogel, Stardust captured these dust samples and store them for safe keep on its long journey back to the Earth. This silica-based material has been inserted within the Aerogel Collector Grid, which is similar to a large tennis racket.

Scientists also hoped Stardust will bring back samples of interstellar dust, including recently discovered dust streaming into our solar system from the direction of Sagittarius. These materials are believed to consist of ancient pre-solar interstellar grains and nebular that include remnants from the formation of the solar system.

Analysis of such fascinating celestial specks is expected to yield important insights into the evolution of the Sun, its planets, and possibly even the origin of life itself, according to Brownlee.

The project is also part of NASA's Discovery program, which is designed to yield high-quality scientific data with frugal budget

posted: 1/13/2006

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