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Stardust Spacecraft to Return January 15, 2006

Lunar & PlanetaryOn the evening of January 15, 2006, at about 4:00 am Arkansas time, a brilliant fireball will begin its passage over the Pacific NW on its way towards a landing in Utah. For people all over that area of the United States, the fireball will be a rare and wonderful site for about a minute. But for NASA scientists working on the Stardust mission, it will be "Welcome home, stranger" as the spacecraft's return module hits Earth's atmosphere at a higher speed than any other manmade object in history. It will be an anxious time until the little 100 lb. object slows itself enough to first release the drogue, and then the main parachutes, that will allow it to land unharmed in the Dugway Proving Grounds in the Utah desert.


UPDATE: Jan 1, 2006
Amateurs are asked to participate in watching, and recording, the re-entry of the Stardust return canister as it lights up the Pacific NorthWest. This following info comes from Night Sky Network.

Stardust Reentry Observing Opportunity and Call for Amateur Astronomer Participation

Stardust is the first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to the exploration of a comet, and the first robotic mission designed to return extraterrestrial material from outside the orbit of the Moon. Additionally, the Stardust spacecraft will bring back samples of interstellar dust, including recently discovered dust streaming into our Solar System from the direction of Sagittarius. Stardust is on its way back home, due to arrive as a visible "meteor" on January 15 starting at around 2 am PDT (3 am MDT). The "meteor" will be visible from several Western states, and especially good in Nevada and Utah. The capsule will actually make landfall in Utah, southwest of Salt Lake. The peak optical brightness is anticipated at minus 7.8. It will be hard to miss if you're in the right place.

Amateur astronomers are invited to participate in the mission! If you are interested in participating, the team is looking for video, still and even visual observation reports. If you are interested there is an observation form and list of observers here: http://reentry.arc.nasa.gov/registrationobserver.html
To learn more about participating in this event, go to the press release at: http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/science/feature002.html

The Stardust spacecraft is almost home now after a nearly 3 billion mile journey. Onboard are pristine samples of interstellar dust grains, and the first ever samples of particles returned from a comet.
NASA's Stardust spacecraft will have traveled some 2.89 billion miles by the time it returns its precious cargo to Earth on January 15, 2006. It successfully encountered periodic Comet 81P/Wild 2 (pronounced 'Vilt 2') in early January of 2004, when it opened its collector grid to allow microscopic particles of cometary dust to be captured in a special material known as Aerogel. This material is 99.8 percent air, and is some of the most highly efficient insulating material ever produced. Insulation is not its intended use, though, because it does an exceedingly good job at safely capturing and holding tiny particles only a few microns across which can impact at speeds of 10,000 mph or more.

Periodic Comet 81/P Wild 2
Stardust was the fourth of NASA's revolutionary missions designed to be cheaper, faster, better. The prime focus of the mission was to capture and return material from a comet, but it also used its unique aerogel material to capture unaltered interstellar dust grains from two different areas of its orbital path through the solar system. Scientists will be interested in finally knowing how unaltered interstellar dust grains compare to the micrometeorite particles that are collected regularly. These tiny objects, only a few microns in diameter, have experienced heating as they hit our atmosphere and are rapidly decelerated enough to eventually float down through the upper atmosphere to the ground.

But it is the cometary material that is of prime interest to NASA scientists, and especially to Dr. Donald Brownlee, principal investigator of the Stardust mission. Brownlee regularly studies the micrometeorites that are scooped up by ultra high-flying U-2 aircraft. These are part of the normal "daily delivery" of meteoritic material that enters the earth's atmosphere and gently rains down across the entire surface of the Earth. Believe it or not, we have all eaten meteoritic materials in the crops which are grown in the farm lands around the world. This material is in cabbage and lettuce and all other crops with large leaves, where the material falls onto the leaves and is then washed down by raindrops into the space between the leaves which is where it can be found when we eat the crop. Umm, tasty!

Click read more for the rest of this story.

This composite image is a short-exposure of the visible surface of comet Wild 2, superimposed over a longer exposure of the comet's bright halo of gaseous materials behind, which are being expelled away from its surface to create the familiar "head and tail" that we identify as a comet.
The return module will re-enter Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 28,860 mph, breaking the previous record held by the manned Apollo 10 spacecraft back in 1969. That, in-and-of-itself isn't that spectacular, until you consider what that high speed will mean for the parachutes that are designed to give the craft a relatively "soft" landing. By waiting a little longer to deploy the parachutes, this problem is off-set by the friction with the atmosphere which will continue to decrease the module's speed until a safe speed to deploy the parachutes is finally reached.

A comet comes to Earth. The return module of the Stardust spacecraft awaits pick-up by NASA scientists after landing (hopefully) softly in the Utah desert at the Dugway Proving Grounds.
Most of us remember the problems with the Genesis spacecraft which was the first spacecraft to return samples from some deep-space explorer to earth in 2005. That parachute system failed to deploy and the Genesis return module crashed into the same Utah desert at over 300 mph, severely damaging the module. Knowing that just such a scenario was possible, the tough design of the craft was instrumental in allowing scientists to recover the majority of the precious cargo of solar particles which had been gathered far from the Sun.

Stardust mission scientists have used the last year to check out every possible system involved with the proper deployment of the parachute system and are quite confident that the accident that befell the Genesis spacecraft will NOT repeat itself.

Exactly one year ago this coming January 15, NASA scored a smash hit with its successful landing of the Huygens lander on the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. That success eclipsed the failure of the Genesis mission accident, but there aren't any similar spectacular missions to rescue the Stardust spacecraft should there be an accident upon its return to Earth. I know I'll be up that evening, waiting for the word that the return module has made it home without incident, and that it will soon give mankind our first glimpse into what the material from a comet looks like. When this information is combined with the findings from last July's Deep Impact mission at Comet Temple-1, we'll have a much clearer idea of what was going on in the solar nebula from which our Sun and its retinue of planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago.

Then, in 2007 we'll be able to add to that information database with the sample return mission by the Japanese Space Exploration Agency spacecraft Huyabusa to asteroid Itokawa. That asteroidal material will yeild information about the makeup of asteroids which are the less distant, more solid cousins of comets. We will all look forward to what all this new information will tell us by 2010, and will someday help toward planning for the first manned-mission to an asteroid.
Stardust Spacecraft to Return January 15, 2006 | 2 comments | Create New Account
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Stardust Spacecraft to Return January 15, 2006
Authored by: poppafred onSaturday, December 24 2005 @ 03:57 pm EST
Just hope the accelerometers that deploy the parachute are the right way around this time! The Genesis landing was almost painful to watch.

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