Catching falling stardust

NASA’s capsule containing dust from Comet Wild 2 returned to Earth yesterday, landing in the desert salt flats of the US Air Force Utah Test and TrainingRange.

The capsule’s landing marks the return of NASA’s Stardust mission which has been on a three billion-mile trip to collect cometary material and interstellar dust.

Samples will be distributed to a number of specialist research teams, including four from the UK. Scientists from the Open University, the NaturalHistoryMuseum, ImperialCollege and the University of Kent will be hoping that the material will provide a key to unlock some of the secrets of the solar system.

Stardust encountered Comet Wild 2 in January 2004 as it came within 146 miles of the comet. Stardust’s collector captured thousands of comet particles into cells filled with Aerogel.

After their capture the particles were locked away in a ‘clam shell’ capsule to protect them on their journey back to Earth.

Four hours before landing the capsule was released by the spacecraft, via a spring mechanism, and entered the Earth’s atmosphere 410,000ft over the Pacific Ocean.

The capsule’s aerodynamic shape meant it could orient itself with its nose down as it entered the atmosphere. At approximately 105,000ft it released a drogue parachute to control its decent until the main parachute opened at around 10,000ft.