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Bringing Home Answers from the Past
by Michelle Mock

Credit: NASA/JPL/StardustBack in February 1999, when today's high school freshmen were little fourth graders, a spacecraft called Stardust was launched into the clear blue Florida sky.  It was off on a fantastic five year journey to catch a comet.  The most fascinating thing about Stardust was the particle collector and a substance called aerogel which would be used to capture particles from the comet.

Aerogel is space age material that seems out of this world but is made right here on Earth.  Credit: NASA/JPLImagine something that looks like clear gelatin but is lighter than a feather and so dry it will actually suck the moisture right out of your hands.  Imagine a substance so fragile that if you poke it or drop it, it will break or crumble, but so strong it can support many times its weight.  Imagine a material that is invisible if you look at it from one direction, blue from another direction or amber from a different direction.  You could even take a sheet of aerogel, a scarce inch thick, place crayons on top and put a lighted blow torch underneath and the crayons would not melt!  Aerogel is really cool stuff!

Back in 1999, the coolest thing about the Stardust mission was the aerogel.  Then, on January 2nd 2004, Stardust intercepted the comet Wild-2 and successfully captured particles of the comet.  Imagine a tiny spacecraft soaring in front of a speeding comet, capturing particles and taking pictures.  The little spacecraft traveled approximately 3.2 billion kilometers (2 billion miles) to catch up to this speeding comet and passed within 240 kilometers (149 miles) of the nucleus to do its dangerous job.  Imagine what a wild ride that must have been. What could be cooler than that?

Now the Stardust spacecraft is on its two year trip back home.  It is scheduled to land in the desert in Utah on January 15th 2006.  When it brings its samples back, scientists will be able to study material from the origins of our solar system... particles as old as 4.5 billion years old.  The adventure has only just begun.

Read more about Stardust and aerogel at:

Send your questions about the Stardust mission, comets and aerogel to: Imagiverse - Ask The Expert

- 3 January 2004


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Last Updated:
4 January 2004

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