Student Features

Return From a Comet
01.13.06
Artist's depiction of Stardust spacecraft approaching Earth

Stardust is coming home after seven years in space. Image Credit: NASA

After almost seven years and billions of miles of travel through space, the Stardust spacecraft is about to come home. When it passes by Earth on Jan. 15, 2006, it will bring with it an incredible souvenir of its trip -- samples of comet and interstellar dust.

Stardust launched on Feb. 7, 1999, on its way to an encounter with Comet Wild 2 on Jan. 2, 2004. On its way to the comet, the spacecraft collected interstellar dust in our solar system. Then, as it passed by Wild 2, the spacecraft collected dust from the comet itself.

On Jan. 15, Stardust will return to Earth. Stardust will return its interstellar cargo by releasing a capsule containing the samples previously collected. A parachute will be deployed allowing a soft-landing safely back on Earth. The samples will land at the Utah Test and Training Range, where a ground-handling team will be eagerly awaiting their arrival. Scientists believe the samples Stardust returns will provide a unique look into the building blocks of our solar system and could help unravel mysteries surrounding its birth and evolution.

Composite image of Wild 2 taken by Stardust

Stardust took this picture as it neared Wild 2 two years ago. Image Credit: NASA

Scientists believe that some comets are older than the planets of our solar system. Because their orbits carry them so far from the sun, comets spend much of their existence in extreme cold. This preserves them much as they were when they first formed, leaving them in a pristine condition that is ideal for research. When they approach the sun, they heat up. Dust and gas start to boil off, forming the area known as the coma. The dust Stardust collected was from the coma of Wild 2. Scientists believe the dust may be the oldest material ever brought back to Earth.

Related Resources
NASA Stardust
Stardust -- NASA's Comet Return Mission  →

Podcast -- Stardust: Heading Home
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> Transcript
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David Hitt/Kathy Forsythe/NASA Educational Technology Services