Pay Dirt: Cometary dust collector comes home

Streaking through Earth’s atmosphere after a 7-year, 5.6-billion-kilometer journey, a space capsule carrying comet and interstellar dust landed in the Utah desert on Jan. 15. NASA’s Stardust spacecraft collected its most precious cargo 2 years ago, when the craft passed within 24 km of the dust-venting nucleus of Comet Wild-2 (SN: 7/3/04, p. 13: Available to subscribers at Cometary encounter). Scientists expect the dust to provide new clues to the solar system’s origin because comets are nearly pristine relics of that time.

SPECIAL DELIVERY. Comet dust–bearing capsule after it landed in the Utah desert. NASA

The tiny dust grains are the first samples of solid extraterrestrial material to be collected and brought back to Earth since the last moon rocks arrived in 1972. A craft bearing gaseous samples of the solar wind crashed when it returned to Earth in 2004.

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