DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah – The space capsule that returned to Earth with the first dust ever fetched from a comet survived its blazing dive through Earth's atmosphere in almost perfect condition, a technician said Monday.
After a seven-year journey, the NASA space capsule landed safely Sunday at Dugway Proving Ground with tiny particles that scientists hope will yield clues to how the solar system formed. The capsule's blazing plunge through the atmosphere lit up parts of the Western sky.
The cosmic samples were gathered as the Stardust spacecraft swooped past a comet known as Wild 2 in 2004. The spacecraft, which was launched in 1999, used a tennis racket-sized collector mitt to snatch the dust and store the particles in an aluminum canister.
Technicians wearing protective masks and suits spent Monday morning at Dugway preparing the Stardust capsule and its sealed sample canister for a flight to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday.
The capsule had only had a small chip on its protective heat shield after bouncing three times in soft mud at the Dugway salt flats, said Joe Vellinga of Lockheed Martin, which built the capsule.
The capsule's inner canister, holding the precious cosmic dust samples, was in excellent shape, he said.
"Everything is very clean. It looks very pristine," Vellinga said.
At the Johnson Space Center , scientists will unlock the sample canister. After a preliminary examination, they hope to ship the particles to laboratories all over the world for study to analyze their composition.
"This [landing] is not the finish line. This is just the intermediate pit stop," said project manager Tom Duxbury of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which managed the $212 million mission.
About a million comet and interstellar dust particles — most smaller than the width of a human hair — are believed to be inside the canister.
They are thought to be pristine leftovers from the birth of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Some samples could be even older than the sun.
"Inside this thing is our treasure," said principal mission scientist Don Brownlee of the University of Washington.
Stardust's successful return was welcome news to the space agency, which suffered a setback in 2004 when its Genesis space probe carrying solar wind atoms crashed into the same Utah salt flats and cracked open after its parachutes failed to deploy.
After the Genesis mishap, engineers rechecked Stardust's systems. Duxbury said its return home went "like clockwork."
The first parachute unfurled at 100,000 feet, followed by a larger chute, which guided the capsule to a 10-mph landing. There was a tense moment in mission control when engineers could not immediately confirm the first parachute had opened.
The Stardust mothership remains in orbit around the sun and NASA is considering sending it to another comet or asteroid to snap photos. There won't be another chance for a sample return, however, because the craft carried only one capsule.
Stardust and Genesis were the first robotic retrievals of extraterrestrial material since the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 in 1976, which brought back lunar rocks and soil.
The Stardust spacecraft has traveled nearly 3 billion miles, including three loops around the sun.
In 2004, it survived its hazardous trip through the Wild 2 comet's coma, a fuzzy halo of gas and dust, to snatch the cosmic dust.
Along the way, it also scooped up interstellar dust — tiny particles thought to have been thrown out by stars that long ago exploded and died.
During the comet flyby, the spacecraft also beamed back 72 black-and-white pictures showing broad mesas, craters, pinnacles and canyons on the surface of Wild 2.
Six months ago, NASA sent the Deep Impact probe into the path of another comet. The probe's high-speed collision with comet Tempel 1 set off a celestial fireworks display and bared the comet's primordial interior.