Back on the 7th February 1999, NASA's Stardust spacecraft was launched. Its seven year, 2.88 billion mile, mission was a round-trip to comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt 2). I remember the launch because a year or so before it there was an opportunity to add your name to a microchip that would be on board. I added quite a few names of friends and relatives to that chip. (If you missed out you may still be able to add your name to the Dawn spacecraft, although this was recently asked to stand down.)

Stardust collected samples of dust from the comet's tail in 2000 and inter-stellar dust in 2002 using aerogel 'tennis racquets'. In January 2004 Stardust made the front pages of many newspapers when the mission team released images of the comet nucleus.

Now, if you were thinking ahead you may have noticed that 1999 plus seven years brings us to 2006 and indeed there are only 23 days (or is that 24 days?) before it returns with the dust samples. The samples will be released in a capsule from the main spacecraft and hurtle through the atmosphere at 12.8 kilometres per second finally landing in the Utah desert by parachute.

If you live in the western States of the U.S. you will be able to watch re-entry early in the morning  (3:15am) on January 15th. In fact the mission team would like amateur astronomers to take photographs or movies of the re-entry to help with their analysis of what happens to the heatshield at these speeds. If you are in the right place you could even catch it passing in front of the Moon. You can find out more at the Hypervelocity re-entries website.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 22nd Dec 2005 (18:47 UTC) | Permalink
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