NASA's Stardust sample return mission returned safely to Earth when the capsule carrying cometary and interstellar particles successfully touched down at 2:10 a.m. Pacific time (3:10 a.m. Mountain time) in the desert salt flats of the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range.
"Ten years of planning and seven years of flight operations were realized early this morning when we successfully picked up our return capsule off of the desert floor in Utah," said Tom Duxbury, Stardust project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The Stardust project has delivered to the international science community material that has been unaltered since the formation of our solar system."
Stardust released its sample return capsule at 9:57 p.m. Pacific time (10:57 p.m. Mountain time) last night. The capsule entered the atmosphere four hours later at 1:57 a.m. Pacific time (2:57 a.m. Mountain time). The drogue and main parachutes deployed at 2:00 and 2:05 a.m. Pacific time, respectively (3:00 and 3:05 a.m. Mountain time).
"I have been waiting for this day since the early 1980s when Deputy Principal Investigator Dr. Peter Tsou of JPL and I designed a mission to collect comet dust," said Dr. Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator from the University of Washington, Seattle. "To see the capsule safely back on its home planet is a thrilling accomplishment."
The sample return capsule's science canister and its cargo of comet and interstellar dust particles will be stowed inside a special aluminum carrying case to await transfer to the Johnson Space Center, Houston, where it will be opened. NASA's Stardust mission traveled 2.88 billion miles during its seven-year round-trip odyssey. Scientists believe these precious samples will help provide answers to fundamental questions about comets and the origins of the solar system.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Stardust mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operated the spacecraft.