Star Search 1999
As Donald Brownlee watched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida last month, Stardust blasted into the heavens. It's not likely many observers considered the wistfully named mission's implications for the hunt for life away from Earth, but Brownlee certainly did.
The astronomy professor is among scores of faculty taking part in the University of Washington's fledgling but groundbreaking doctoral program in astrobiology, the search for life on other celestial bodies, which begins this fall. He also is the principal investigator for Stardust, a seven-year mission designed to travel to comet Wild 2, capture samples of comet dust and bring them back for analysis.
This is a mission Brownlee has dreamed of since 1980. Technological advances and fortuitous events in space made it possible. In 1974, Wild 2 came close enough to Jupiter that the giant planet's gravity altered the comet's orbit around the Sun. Now instead of continuing to circle only among the outer planets of the solar system, it actually passes relatively close to Earth. Yet it hasn't been among the inner planets long enough for heat from the sun to have destroyed or altered telltale properties, characteristics Brownlee believes will provide new clues on the origins of the solar system and possibly the universe itself.
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