15 January 2006

Stardust Returns Safely!

Image Credit: NASA

Stardust has successfully landed!

After logging billions of miles, the capsule delivering NASA's first cometary sample return mission has touched down safely. Congratulations to all team members on a job well done in bringing the package home.

Helicopters charged with recovering the sample return capsule are en route this very moment.

More updates to follow.

Update 04:49 CST: Helicopter "Vertigo-1" has located the capsule!

Update 04:54 CST
: Confirmed.

Update 05:02 CST: Mission Completed, as reported by Space.com

Update 05:07 CST: Capsule confirmed intact.

Added 07:00 CST:

At 5:10 a.m. Eastern time, Stardust's return capsule landed in the Utah Test and Training Range. The NASA TV image above shows an infrared view of a helicopter on the ground at the capsule landing site. The capsule contains cometary and interstellar samples gathered by the mission.

infrared view of helicopter at capsule landing site

Capsule Milestones (all times approximate EST on Jan. 15)

12:57 a.m.: Spacecraft releases capsule checkmark
4:57 a.m.: Capsule enters Earth atmosphere checkmark
5 a.m.: First parachute (drogue) deploys checkmark
5:05 a.m.: Main parachute deploys checkmark
5:10 a.m.: Capsule lands checkmark
5:40 a.m. (approx.): Helicopter and crew land near capsule
7:20 a.m. (approx.): Capsule arrives at temporary cleanroom

Added 09:34 CST:

NASA's Stardust sample return mission returned safely to Earth when the capsule carrying cometary and interstellar particles successfully touched down at 2:10 a.m. Pacific time (3:10 a.m. Mountain time) in the desert salt flats of the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range.

"Ten years of planning and seven years of flight operations were realized early this morning when we successfully picked up our return capsule off of the desert floor in Utah," said Tom Duxbury, Stardust project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The Stardust project has delivered to the international science community material that has been unaltered since the formation of our solar system."

Stardust released its sample return capsule at 9:57 p.m. Pacific time (10:57 p.m. Mountain time) last night. The capsule entered the atmosphere four hours later at 1:57 a.m. Pacific time (2:57 a.m. Mountain time). The drogue and main parachutes deployed at 2:00 and 2:05 a.m. Pacific time, respectively (3:00 and 3:05 a.m. Mountain time).

"I have been waiting for this day since the early 1980s when Deputy Principal Investigator Dr. Peter Tsou of JPL and I designed a mission to collect comet dust," said Dr. Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator from the University of Washington, Seattle. "To see the capsule safely back on its home planet is a thrilling accomplishment."

The sample return capsule's science canister and its cargo of comet and interstellar dust particles will be stowed inside a special aluminum carrying case to await transfer to the Johnson Space Center, Houston, where it will be opened. NASA's Stardust mission traveled 2.88 billion miles during its seven-year round-trip odyssey. Scientists believe these precious samples will help provide answers to fundamental questions about comets and the origins of the solar system.

Added 20:15 CST

Image credit: NASA/Ames

This image was taken by the DC-8 Stardust Observation Campaign flight. It shows Stardust as it is moving through the atmosphere.

Image credit: NASA
This NASA TV image shows NASA's Stardust sample return capsule being wheeled into a temporary cleanroom at the Michael Army Air Field in Utah. Earlier, the capsule successfully landed at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range at 2:10 a.m. Pacific time (3:10 a.m. Mountain time). It contains cometary and interstellar samples gathered by the Stardust spacecraft. The capsule's science canister is safely stowed inside a special aluminum carrying case awaiting transportation to the Johnson Space Center, Houston, where it will be opened.

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