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Stardust Team Prepares for Return of Science Canister
It was just a simulation but the enthusiasm and anticipation were clearly evident on the faces of all involved.

Stardust team members practice transporting the Stardust canister Image right: Stardust team members practice moving a canister to the Stardust Lab at the Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA/JSC

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NASA's Stardust spacecraft, which collected particles from comet Wild 2 in January 2004, will complete its two-year, 708-million-mile trek back to Earth this January. The capsule will be transported to Johnson Space Center, Houston, and stored in the Stardust Laboratory. The samples will be stored in the Stardust Laboratory and distributed to scientists who will make the first analyses of these particles.

Stardust recovery and science team members met at JSC the week of Oct. 3-7 to rehearse the steps that will be involved in recovering the samples from the Stardust capsule in January. A canister was transported to JSC and placed in the Stardust clean room. There scientists removed the Stardust sample trays and rehearsed techniques they will use to document, process and analyze the cometary and interstellar particles.

"The spacecraft recovery team and the mission science team were at JSC all week to shake down procedures for opening the sample canister and harvesting and analyzing the captured samples," said Mike Zolensky, Stardust co-investigator and NASA space scientist in JSC's Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate.

Once the Sample Return Capsule is recovered at the Utah Test and Training Range on Jan. 15, its contents will be placed in the capable hands of the Stardust Curation Team based at JSC. This team will then go about the business of carefully transporting the aerogel containing grains from comet Wild 2 and interstellar dust to the Stardust Lab at JSC for examination.

The samples gathered by Stardust are expected to consist of about 1,000 cometary dust particles and an additional 100 interstellar dust grains. The expected total mass of the sample will probably be one milligram, less than a thimbleful.

Stardust team at Johnson Space Center Image left: The Stardust team poses in the Stardust Lab at the Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA/JSC

The JSC team has developed exacting techniques for the removal and analysis of captured grains from the silica aerogel used as a capture medium. They will continue to improve and practice these techniques before the comet samples are placed into their hands in 2006. The rehearsal this month provided yet another opportunity to perfect these techniques.

The samples may help scientists better understand the nature of comets and their role in the early history of the solar system. Scientists are eager to have samples in a lab to examine.

"Nothing beats getting a piece of sample," said Peter Tsou, deputy principal investigator for the Stardust mission, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. "A lot of secrets are locked into the microstructure at almost the atom level. So you can only analyze them when you get individual particles."

There are 180 investigators worldwide who will be involved in the preliminary examination of the returned Stardust samples.

"Some scientific results will come out almost immediately," said Donald Brownlee, principal investigator for the Stardust mission and professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. "The first time you look at something under a microscope you can see details that you didn't know about before. Other things will obviously take years. But we expect to get a significant science return within the first couple months of scientific investigation."

Tsou and Brownlee were at JSC for the rehearsal. They were joined by other Stardust science team members, Lockheed Martin Space Systems personnel, members of JSC's astromaterials curation staff, ARES scientists and others.

The Stardust spacecraft was launched in February 1999. It encountered its target, comet Wild 2, on Jan. 2, 2004. In addition to capturing samples of cometary material for return to Earth, Stardust collected grains from a stream of particles from interstellar space. The spacecraft will release a capsule containing the sample particles for landing at the Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range on Jan. 15.

Stardust, a part of NASA's Discovery Program of low-cost, highly focused science missions, was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver and is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information on the Stardust mission, visit:

For more information on the JSC Stardust Curation Team, visit:
NASA's Johnson Space Center
Bill Jeffs