This Sunday morning (15th January) at 10.12 am GMT a capsule containing dust from Comet Wild 2 will return to Earth landing in the Utah Desert near Salt Lake City. The landing of the capsule marks the return of NASA’s Stardust mission which has been on a three billion-mile trip to collect pristine cometary material and interstellar dust. After their collection samples will be distributed to a limited number of specialist research teams. Four UK institutions have been invited to be part of these Preliminary Examination Teams: scientists from the Open University, the Natural History Museum, Imperial College and the University of Kent will be hoping that the material provides a key to unlock some of the secrets of the Solar System.
Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive Officer of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), which part funded the UK involvement in Stardust, said, “The return of the samples from Stardust is a truly remarkable feat. It will be the first time in the history of space exploration that samples from a comet and from interstellar space will be returned to Earth. It is particularly exciting that scientists from the UK will be some of the first to analyse the samples – helping to further our understanding of the origins of the Solar System.”
Following its launch in February 1999 Stardust made its brief but dramatic encounter with Comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt after its Swiss discoverer) on 2nd January 2004 capturing thousands of particles as it came within 146 miles of the comet. Remarkably, it survived the high speed impact of millions of dust particles and small rocks of up to half a centimetre across (Stardust passed Comet Wild 2 at 13,000 mph – over 6 times faster than a speeding bullet). Stardust’s tennis racket shaped collector captured thousands of these comet particles into cells filled with Aerogel - a substance so light it almost floats in air.
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