Sunday, January 15, 2006

Stardust Returns

I set my alarm for 3:30 this morning so that I could get up and watch the (hoped for) return to earth of Stardust. This was a NASA space probe sent up on February 7th, 1999 with the mission being to collect particles from both interplanetary space and from the tail of Comet Wild-2. As NASA missions go, this was reasonably ambitious. The space probe traveled nearly 2.9 billion miles to and from the Comet to accomplish this mission.

The method chosen to capture these particles is ingenious. There is a very cool, man-made substance called Aerogel. It is like a solid foam, but is very porous and approaches the density of ordinary air. It looks like solid smoke. It has many interesting properties, detailed here, and is perfect for capturing these particles.

Why send this mission? What will it do for us? Comets have been around since the formation of the Solar system, an estimated 4.5 billion years ago. Unlike particles that have formed planets (like Earth) and have been altered countless times by geographic and weathering forces, Comets are still in their original state. This means that these particles are the same as though that actually formed the earth and other planets. Learning about them can tell us more about how the Solar system was formed. This can help us understand the evolution of our system and may point to clues about how other systems have formed or are forming; vital information in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Everything appears to have gone perfectly. It was very exciting to watch, in real-time, the Infrared images of the module.

Picture of returned capsule, waiting for pickup

God, I love this stuff. Maybe I’ll be an astronomer or physicist when I grow up…

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