Donald Brownlees heart skipped a beat six years ago when the launch of the Stardust spacecraft didnt happen as planned. The University of Washington astronomy professor has experienced many other tense times since the historic mission blasted off a day late, and its return to Earth on Jan. 15 will be just one more white-knuckle moment.
An artists rendering depicts the Stardust return capsule just after landing in the desert southwest of Salt Lake City.
Just before 3 a.m. MST, the spacecraft will jettison its return capsule, which will plunge into Earths atmosphere at nearly 29,000 miles per hour, the greatest return speed ever recorded. A few moments later, after the capsule slows to just faster than the speed of sound, a parachute will apply the brakes and Stardust will settle to the ground on the Air Forces Utah Testing and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City.
"Theres a lot at stake. You just hope everything works, and I am confident it will work," said Brownlee, the missions principal investigator, or lead scientist.
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