NASA’s unmanned Stardust space probe successfully returns its samples of comet and interstellar dust to Earth. A few minutes after 5:00am Eastern time, the Stardust sample return capsule makes a soft landing in Utah, its record-setting 29,000mph return to Earth slowed by a series of parachutes. (Before Stardust’s return, the fastest vehicle to enter Earth’s atmosphere was the capsule bringing home the crew of Apollo 10 in May 1969.) It is hoped that analysis of the tiny particles captured in cakes of a special porous material called aerogel will shed some light on the origins of the solar system. The “mother ship” portion of the Stardust probe is left on a course that will put it into a permanent orbit around the sun. Stardust was launched in February 1999, and gathered its samples from the cloud of gas and dust surrounding Comet Wild-2 in January 2004, zipping through the comet’s coma at 13,000mph.
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