attn Amara and aerogel fans

From: Spike Jones (
Date: Tue Apr 25 2000 - 20:11:22 MDT


     Like an excited kid hoping to snag a fly ball at a
professional baseball game, NASA's Stardust spacecraft has
extended its high-tech "catcher's mitt" to collect a valuable
space souvenir -- a batch of interstellar dust particles.

     The dust is contained in a stream of particles that flows
through our solar system, and scientists are anxious to study it
so they can learn more about the formation of Earth, other
planets and life.

     "We can see this material with the naked eye as a black zone
running along the center of the Milky Way," said Dr. Donald
Brownlee of the University of Washington in Seattle, principal
investigator for Stardust. "These particles contain the heavy
chemical elements that originated in the stars. Since every atom
in our bodies came from the inside of stars, by studying these
interstellar dust particles we can learn about our cosmic roots."

     Stardust is equipped with a special collector containing
aerogel, a unique substance that can trap the particles and store
the precious cargo safely until it's returned to Earth. The
aerogel collector has two sides, one designed to gather the
interstellar dust and one for comet dust collection, which will
take place later in the mission. Engineers orient the spacecraft
to control which side of the collector is exposed to a dust

     Right now, Stardust is oriented so that the interstellar
dust particles are hitting the backside of the collector. This
collection began on February 22, when the spacecraft's sample
return capsule opened and the aerogel collector was moved out of
the capsule. It will remain in this configuration until May 1,
when the collector will return to its stowed position for safe
storage until mid-2002, when another period of interstellar dust
collection is scheduled.

     "The project's name, 'Stardust,' reflects the importance of
this event," said Stardust Project Manager Dr. Kenneth Atkins of
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. "It's
the first time anyone has attempted to catch anything like this
and bring it home. After all the design, building, testing, and
now the flying of this spacecraft over the past four years, the
moment of truth for the collector is here. These tiny particles
zip by at 20 to 25 kilometers per second (about 45,000 to 56,000
miles per hour) relative to the spacecraft. The aerogel must
slow them to a stop in fractions of an inch."

     In late December 2003, the collector will be deployed again
in preparation for the gathering of comet dust samples when
Stardust flies by Comet Wild-2 on January 2, 2004. Once the
samples of both interstellar dust and comet dust are tucked
safely inside the aerogel collector, it will be retracted into
the sample return capsule. Stardust will begin the return trip
to Earth and make a soft landing at the U.S. Air Force's Utah
Test and Training Range in 2006. The sample canister will be
taken to the planetary material curatorial facility at NASA's
Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. The samples will be
carefully extracted and then examined by scientists.

     "I'm thrilled at the thought of being able to look at and
study these particles firsthand," Brownlee said.

     More information on the Stardust mission is available at .

     Stardust was launched on February 7, 1999. The mission is
managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington,
D.C. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, Co, built and operates
the spacecraft. Science instruments were provided by JPL, the
University of Chicago and the Max Planck Institute, Garching,
Germany. JPL is a division of the California Institute of
Technology, Pasadena.

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