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JPL Podcast: Stardust Samples -- First Peek
01.20.06


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Narrator:
The first peek at comet dust -- up close and personal. This is a Stardust News Capsule from JPL -- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I'm Jane Platt.

Like kids seeing a gift tied with a fancy bow, but having to wait till their birthday to open it, Stardust mission scientists and engineers were awaiting this moment with baited breath. After a 7 year, nearly 3 billion mile journey, NASA's Stardust sample return capsule, fresh from its landing Sunday, January 15 in the Utah desert -- was taken to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. On Tuesday, the capsule was pried open, giving the team their first peek inside.

Dr. Don Brownlee:
That was our first view of comet dust, so we were the first people on the history of this planet to see comet dust in hand.

Narrator:
Stardust principal investigator Dr. Don Brownlee from the University of Washington, Seattle, spoke at news conference Wednesday in Houston. He and his colleagues shared video of the team, sporting white bunny suits with blue gloves, getting the first look at the tiny cometary grains.

Dr. Don Brownlee:
You're seeing the very first, absolutely identified cometary particle that's ever been seen. And it appears to be a transparent mineral grain, which scientifically is great, because there's been lots of discussion about whether comets contain minerals or glass or whatever, and our very first one is it, so we've already got scientific results, which is great.

Narrator:
Comets are frozen leftovers from the formation of our solar system. Scientists think these miniscule particles gathered by Stardust will answer a lot of questions about our solar system. Many of the samples will be packed and shipped to scientists all over the globe. So what can you do with these tiny particles? Well, actually, a lot, according to Dr. Michael Zolensky, Stardust curator and co-investigator, at Johnson Space Center.

Dr. Michael Zolensky:
The fact is you can do an amazing amount of things with a really tiny grain you can't see, except with a microscope. You take this grain and slice it up like a loaf of bread and parcel out slices to scientists all over the world . They pass them around and trade them back and forth, and analyze them for all these critical features. Even on this one grain, you could spend months just looking at one little 10-micron grain, we've done it in the past.

Narrator:
Brownlee said a lot of things had to go right before the samples could come home to Earth.

Dr. Don Brownlee:
At this point in time, we're absolutely thrilled. It's totally remarkable to have a fully successful mission, of all the things that can go wrong, either in space or even scientifically. None of the bad things happened and everything really exceeded our wildest expectations.

Narrator:
And Dr. Peter Tsou of JPL, the Stardust deputy principal investigator, is awed by the incredible landing in the Utah desert.

Dr. Peter Tsou:
The homecoming is almost miraculous. The weather just about a couple of hours before, it's all dark, and it was snow and rain and it really threatened us. For some reason, must be some divine opening in the window for a few hours, because after we landed safely, we had a heavy snowstorm. This is a miraculous mission.

Narrator: Michael Zolensky.

Dr. Michael Zolensky:
We couldn't have done a better job collecting these particles. And now they're back on Earth, they're safely here for generations of scientists to study. We couldn't be more excited.

Narrator:
And you are invited to share that excitement by becoming amateur scientists. Besides collecting comet dust, Stardust also caught particles of interstellar dust, meaning the material that's between the stars. Here's where you come in.

Dr. Michael Zolensky:
We invite anyone in the world to basically log on, sign up for this program and you can download images we're going to be scanning of this interstellar tray, millions of them, to be basically looking for impacts in the privacy of their own home. We already have more than 50,000 people signing up for this, and we hope for many, many more.

Narrator:
You can find out more about that program at http://stardustathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/ . More information on the Stardust mission is online at www.nasa.gov . And you can find more podcasts at www.nasa.gov/podcast .
Thank you for joining us for this Stardust News Capsule.

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