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Gathering Dust Print
Written by Vince Stricherz   
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Wild 2 comet
A close-up of the comet Wild 2 taken by Stardust's camera.
Perfection is a rare commodity, especially in space exploration.

In 1997, two years before NASA launched the Stardust mission to capture dust from a comet, a Delta II rocket worth around $40 million blew up on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, raining debris over a wide area. It was the same model of Boeing rocket that NASA was planning to use to launch Stardust.

Barely a year before Stardust was supposed to return to Earth, an unmanned NASA spacecraft called Genesis did a cosmic face-plant in the Utah desert. When its parachutes failed to open, Genesis hit with a 200-miles-per-hour splat. (Remarkably, more than 80 percent of the data was saved.) It was made by the same people who made Stardust.

But if bad fortune can run in streaks, so can good. Just ask UW Astronomy Professor Donald Brownlee, ’71.

For instance:

• When Stardust was launched in February 1999, it was so on target that the first planned course correction was canceled.

• When the return capsule blazed through the black early-morning sky on Jan. 15, Stardust had traveled 2.88 billion miles, the longest round trip in human history. It landed only slightly beyond the center of an imaginary oval target at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground—and that was only because the wind from a strong winter storm caught hold of the parachute during descent.

Stardust return capsule
The Stardust return capsule makes a spectacular re-entry trail across the sky above Wendover, Utah. Photo by Bruce Fischer.
• As the capsule screamed home at four times the speed of sound, nervousness percolated through the control rooms at Dugway and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. But Brownlee the UW alumnus and astronomer who is the mission’s principal investigator, was like a kid waiting for a new bike. Standing outside in Dugway’s frigid night air, he was able to see the re-entry only because the storm clouds miraculously parted at just the right time, and for just long enough.

• A couple of days later, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, a swarm of scientists decked out like brain surgeons hovered as they opened the return canister. They craned their necks to peer inside, but everything looked too clean, too pristine. There was a sinking feeling. They thought the collector had never deployed, that the spacecraft failed its primary mission. Then jubilation—they saw a few tiny impact craters, evidence of comet particles. Then they saw a few more. It turned out there were tens of thousands of particles.

The samples that Stardust brought back from comet Wild 2 totaled far less than a thimbleful of material, yet they are almost an embarrassment of riches for scientists, who will be studying them for decades.

“It’s not much, and yet it’s so much that we’re almost overwhelmed,” Brownlee explained recently to a group of science writers gathered in a conference room two floors up from his UW office. As he spoke, he ran a slide showing a speck magnified 30,000 times by his lab’s electron microscope.

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