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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1998 > Jun > Jun 30

Mission To Collect Samples Of Comet Dust

From: Mark LeCuyer <randydan@wavetech.net>
Date: Tue, 30 Jun 1998 01:31:57 -0500
Fwd Date: Tue, 30 Jun 1998 06:26:46 -0400
Subject: Mission To Collect Samples Of Comet Dust

From: Alien Astronomer


FROM: Vince Stricherz
University of Washington
DATE: June 29, 1998

February launch planned for UW mission to collect samples of
comet dust.

It might sound like something from a popular science fiction
movie, but a University of Washington astronomy professor's
nearly two-decade dream of launching an unmanned spacecraft to
collect interstellar dust from a comet is close to coming true.

Stardust will blast off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in February.
It will be the fourth mission in NASA's Discovery series, which
captured public imagination a year ago with Mars Pathfinder. It
will be the first mission since Apollo to return samples of
space material to Earth for analysis.

UW professor Donald Brownlee, the principal investigator for the
project, expects to find clues about the formation of the solar
system and perhaps the universe itself.

"We hope to understand how comets were formed and what they're
made of," he said. "We expect them to be the preserved building
blocks of the outer planets."

Brownlee began considering such a mission in1980. The idea was
explored seriously five years later when Halley's comet
approached Earth, but it was deemed unworkable then.

For Stardust's 7-year, 3.1-billion-mile journey, solar panels
will power the spacecraft to encounter Wild 2, a comet that
altered course in 1974 after a close encounter with Jupiter. Now
instead of circling among the outer planets in our solar system,
Wild 2 (pronounced vihlt 2) travels among the inner planets. It
was discovered in 1978 during its first close approach to Earth.

Wild 2's recent arrival to the planetary neighborhood makes the
$200 million Stardust mission possible. In 2004, the craft will
pass about 75 miles from the main body of the comet. That's
close enough to trap small particles from the comet's coma, the
gas-and-dust envelope surrounding the nucleus. A camera built
for NASA's Voyager program will transmit the first-ever close-up
comet pictures back to Earth. Though the encounter will last
about 12 hours, Brownlee says the really intense activity will
be over in a matter of minutes.

The collection system will extend from the spacecraft and trap
particles as they collide with it. To prevent damaging or
altering the particles - each smaller than a grain of sand and
traveling as much as nine times the speed of a bullet fired from
a rifle - the collector uses a unique substance called aerogel.
Often called "frozen smoke," aerogel is a transparent blue
silica-based solid that is as much as 99.9 percent air. It is as
smooth as glass, something like plastic foam without the lumps.
A block the size of a person weighs less than a pound but can
support the weight of a small car.

On the trip to Wild 2, the aerogel-equipped collection panel
will be deployed to trap interstellar particles traveling in
space. During the encounter with the comet, some 242 million
miles from Earth, the opposite side of the panel will gather
bits of comet dust. Trapped particles will leave a telltale
trail through the aerogel that scientists will follow to find
the grains and extract them. Upon leaving the comet, the
collection panel will retract into its capsule.

Once the Stardust capsule parchutes into Utah's Great Salt
Desert in 2006, the particles it collects will go to Johnson
Space Center in Houston and then be parceled out to various
research facilities, including the University of Washington.
Because comets are about equal parts ice and dust, Brownlee
believes the particles will be cryogenically preserved
interstellar dust left from the birth of the solar system some
4.6 billion years ago. Such grains can be found only in the
outer solar system, he believes, because heat has destroyed them
nearer the Sun.

Brownlee's previous work collecting cosmic dust particles led to
their being named Brownlee particles. Cosmic dust was brought
back to Earth on Gemini missions in the 1960s. Later,
high-flying U2 planes and balloons gathered particles from
different levels in the atmosphere, and space dust even has been
collected from the ocean floor. "A comet mission is the logical
extension," Brownlee said.

The project is being carried out by a consortium that includes
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Astronautics.
When it came to picking a name, Brownlee said, it just seemed
appropriate to select "Stardust," the title Hoagy Carmichael put
on a popular tune that since has been recorded by numerous
artists, including Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr.

"I liked it because most spacecraft missions had weird, bizarre
names. They were acronyms for something," he said. "This isn't
an acronym for anything. It's just a name that people know."


For more information, contact Brownlee at
brownlee@bluemoon.astro.washington.edu or (206) 543-8575.

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