[meteorite-list] Stardust Scientist Shares Sights and Sounds of Capsule's Landing After 3 Billion Mile, 7-Year Journey

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Feb 2 13:03:37 2006
Message-ID: <200602021801.k12I1vY19130_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Long nights, chilly days on Stardust mission

Scientist shares sights and sounds of capsule's landing after 3 billion
mile, 7-year journey.

Warren E. Leary
New York Times
February 2, 2006

A long journey ended and a new one began in the same way, with sleepless

On Jan. 15, the sample capsule from the Stardust spacecraft made a
triumphant return to Earth, laden with the stuff of comets and stars.
After a seven-year swing of almost 3 billion miles through the solar
system, it survived a fiery dash through the atmosphere to parachute
softly to a landing in the Utah desert.

"The re-entry fireball was quite beautiful (what I could see of it over
my shoulder through the helicopter window)," wrote Scott Sandford, an
astrophysicist who witnessed the event, "and a real relief to see."

Sandford, a co-investigator for the mission from NASA's Ames Research
Center in California, was the lone member of the agency's science team
involved in the capsule recovery. Before, during and after the
operation, he filed e-mail dispatches to fellow team members that
described not just the process but the anticipation, the apprehension
and ultimately the elation of the events. The messages were shared with
journalists and others, and some of them are reproduced here.

The Stardust captured tens of thousands of dust particles from its 2004
encounter with the comet Wild 2 and thousands more that originated from
stars far out in space. The craft's 14-inch-wide collector, filled with
a wispy silicon material called aerogel, also snared an unexpectedly
large number of particles visible without a microscope.

Scientists think the particles are pristine remains of the materials
that formed the solar system 4.6 billion years ago and could be a
history book describing the origins of the planets.

But the success of the $212 million mission depended upon retrieving the
Stardust sample capsule from the salt flats at the Air Force's Utah Test
and Training range, processing it in a sterile "clean room" at a base on
the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds and delivering the collector to the
Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Recovery specialists marshaled by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and the
Army practiced every contingency and then waited and watched, as
Sandford recounted in his reports.

Friday: "A little over 40 hours from recovery. The Recovery Team has
pretty much finished up all its preparations, and we are now mostly
taking it easy and saving our energy.

Sunday: After the capsule landed during a lull between two storms,
Sandford was on the second of three helicopters that flew to the site.
"The field conditions were very muddy, but no water got in the SRC, and
the SRC itself didn't get too muddy. (Our boots, on the other hand ... )
The recovery went almost perfectly."

Monday: "Sorry for the long delay, but I was up 39 hours straight
dealing with the recovery and then washing and organizing gear, followed
by watching the disassembly of the canister from the back shield and the
heat shield. After that I caught some sleep.

"Disassembly of the SRC took quite a long time but everything went well.
>From what I could see as I monitored from outside the clean room, the
inside of the SRC is very clean. It gives the impression it was just
assembled yesterday. No water got in the capsule. The canister is closed
tight, no dings, dents or scrapes, and no loose aerogel.

"It has been a real relief to find out that large chunks of the time I
spent in various off-nominal ((unexpected)) recovery rehearsals were all
'wasted' time."

Wednesday: "We loaded up all the Sample Return Capsule gear and related
hardware onto a flatbed truck and transported it to a waiting C-130
Hercules. Loading the plane was cold work. My parka was stowed in the
gear. "A convoy of police cars, vans and a truck were waiting to take us
to JSC. It took almost an hour to transfer from the plane to the truck
(we were very careful and thorough).

"We got a police escort all the way to JSC; police cars took turns
dashing ahead of us so they could block all the intersections, so we
never had to stop at lights. If we'd added a brass band it would have
made a lovely parade.

"We arrived at the curatorial building at JSC, and there was a nice
little crowd of people there to greet us and give enthusiastic applause
(one of the only times in all of this that I got a little choked up) and
then I escorted the canister up to the Stardust clean room."

"It immediately became obvious that we have lots of wonderful samples."
Received on Thu 02 Feb 2006 01:01:57 PM PST

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