Stardust spacecraft

Stardust spacecraft

Courtesy of NASA

Stardust went on a mission to collect interstellar dust and samples from Comet Wild 2. The craft returned to Earth’s orbit to drop off the samples—by parachuting the canister containing the samples to a site in Utah. The same spacecraft then flew on another mission, Stardust NExT, to travel to Comet Tempel 1 (arrival in 2011) and inspect the crater made by Deep Impact in 2005.

February 7, 1999

January 2, 2004

End of Mission
January 15, 2006

Collect comet dust during a close encounter with Comet Wild 2 (pronounced “Vilt 2”). Collect interstellar dust.

Comet dust particles were returned to Earth when Stardust parachuted its samples to the Utah Test Range. The canister with comet particles and interstellar dust particles was taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Samples were distributed to an international team of 200 scientists for study. Many of the organic compounds appear to be more “primitive” than those seen in meteorites. Comet particles have a wide range of compositions, indicating that there must have been a lot of mixing of material in the white-hot regions of the inner Solar System and also in the extremely cold (near 0 Kelvin) regions at the edge of the Solar System. Comets are truly a mixture of fire and ice. Continued analysis may yield important insights into the evolution of the Sun, its planets, and possibly even the origin of life.