Before the end of January particles from a distant comet will be delivered to The Open University and research will begin on what could be keys to the origin of life in the universe.
NASA’s Stardust mission is returning to Earth early January 15th after a three billion-mile (4.6 billion-km) trip to collect interstellar comet dust from Comet Wild 2 (pronounced vilt after the Swiss man who discovered it). During a brief encounter with Comet Wild 2 nearly two years ago, Stardust captured thousands of particles as it came within 146 miles (240 km) of the comet, surviving the high speed impact of millions of dust particles and small rocks up to nearly half a centimetre across. 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.
The samples are returning to Earth in a capsule that will parachute into the Utah desert, the first sample-return mission to a comet. The first samples will be made available to a small number of teams, including The Open University’s Planetary and Space Science Research Institute (PSSRI), for preliminary analysis before their release to the wider scientific community.
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 will be returned to Earth. It is particularly exciting that the Open University team will be one of the first to analyse the samples – helping to further our understanding of the origins of the Solar System.”
Louis De La Foret | alfa
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