NASA's Stardust spacecraft successfully landed in the Utah desert in the predawn hours of Jan. 15, 2005. Tucked aboard the probe were samples of comet material and interstellar dust, which scientists are eager to study.
Here's how the landing day unfolded for the probe beginning with the most recent update:
STARDUST RE-ENTRY TIMELINE
January 15. 2006 UPDATE: 5:35 a.m EST
Search is on for Capsule
The Stardust sample return capsule successfully skyrocketed through the Earth's atmosphere and has landed under parachute within the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). An unofficial touch down was 5:10 a.m. EST.
There was palpable heavy-breathing here at the Lockheed Martin Mission Support Area, waiting for a drogue parachute to being stabilizing the falling capsule for its main parachute.
"Everything worked so well. What an exciting moment," said, Allan Cheuvront, Stardust spacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operated the spacecraft. In September 2004, the company's Genesis spacecraft smashed into Utah due to improper placement of recovery system components.
Helicopters dispatched to the capsule's landing site have detected it's beacon.
January 15. 2006 UPDATE: 5:12 a.m EST
Stardust Capsule Has Landed
Stardust's sample capsule has landed at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, southwest of Salt Lake City.
January 15. 2006 UPDATE: 5:00 a.m EST
Capsule Fireballs into Atmosphere
Stardust's sample capsule has plunged into the Earth's upper atmosphere at approximately 4:57 a.m. EST, blazing a trail across the western United States en route to the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, southwest of Salt Lake City.
The sky show was to be visible from central California through central Oregon, on through Nevada and into Utah.
The Stardust sample return capsule has the highest return speed--some 29,000 miles per hour (12.8 kilometers per second) of any human-made Earth reentry object to date.
A key element of the capsule is its heat shield, which resembles a blunt-nosed cone that protects it from the intense heat and friction that is generated during Earth reentry. The heat shield is comprised of two parts: a lightweight aeroshell structure and a thermal protection system (TPS). The TPS is a flight-qualified version of the high-energy ablator PICA (Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator) invented by NASA Ames Research Center. Stardust is the first flight of this material.
Three helicopters at the Utah range have been deployed, and are in a holding area to begin capsule retrieval operations once the hardware is on the desert floor.
The landing area has seen a mix of weather - with winds at various altitudes likely to be encountered by the capsule once under parachute.
The capsule is slated to touch down at 5:12 a.m. EST.
January 15. 2006 UPDATE: 2:22 a.m EST
Stardust Main Spacecraft Sent into Solar Orbit
With NASA's Stardust's sample return capsule now headed toward Earth, the main spacecraft has nudged itself into a "divert maneuver". That will keep the mother craft from hitting Earth, placing it on an orbit around the Sun.
"We achieved what we wanted to do...the burn went right on time," Allan Cheuvront, Stardust spacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems told SPACE.com shortly after the mother ship was placed on its new trajectory.
After nearly seven years of space travel, the solar-powered Stardust and onboard gear--including an operational navigation camera--have weathered well. An expected 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of fuel should be left onboard after the divert maneuver.
"NASA has no current plans for an extended mission," said Tom Morgan, Stardust Program Scientist and Executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. However, individuals who wish to propose post-return uses for the spacecraft to NASA may submit a proposal for the use of the spacecraft in response to the current Discovery Announcement of Opportunity, a document released on January 3, 2006, Morgan told SPACE.com via email.
"If NASA declines to accept any of these proposals--or if none are submitted--the spacecraft will be decommissioned," Morgan said.
January 15. 2006 UPDATE: 1:30 a.m EST
The Stardust spacecraft has released its 101-pound (46-kilogram) sample return capsule. Mission controllers here at Lockheed Martin's Mission Support Area (MSA) commanded the spacecraft to begin a computer-controlled sequence that led to the ejection of the capsule at 12:57 EST.
Two cable cutters were fired on the spacecraft to sever a cable harness that connects the capsule to the spacecraft. Three retention bolts were also fired to set free the capsule from the Stardust mother ship. Springs aboard the spacecraft pushed the capsule away.
"Physics has taken over," said one controller. Thumbs up hit the air from individuals at their respective sites as telemetry indicated the separation. "It worked the way it was supposed to," another controller said.
The capsule - carrying its precious cargo of interstellar and comet particles - was spun up like a top at separation - helping to stabilize the capsule's orientation.
At 4:57 am EST, four hours after being released by the Stardust spacecraft, the capsule will enter Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 410,000 feet (125 kilometers) over Northern California.
January 15. 2006 UPDATE: 12:35 a.m EST
Stardust is "Go" for Capsule Deployment
"We're doing well," said Allan Cheuvront, Stardust spacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. After polling command and control teams here, a "go" decision has been made to release the sample return capsule, he said. The spacecraft's last maneuver has placed it precisely on track for deployment of the capsule.
Meanwhile, reports are that a front is moving on into the Utah recovery site. Light showers may be developing, as well as strong winds. As of this time, use of helicopter recovery teams remains the plan.
January 14. 2006 UPDATE: 3:45 p.m EST
A late night thruster firing January 13 aboard the Stardust spacecraft went without a hitch. Mission navigators carried out the last planned trajectory correction maneuver of the Earth approaching spacecraft, advised Allan Cheuvront, Stardust spacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. He noted it was a nominal burn.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operates the spacecraft.
The thruster firing is designed to precisely place the Stardust sample return capsule within its designated reentry corridor as it plunges into Earth's atmosphere. The capsule is targeted to land within the high desert of the Utah Test & Training Range.
If mission navigators feel another thruster firing is needed, there is the opportunity to conduct a final "contingency" maneuver on January 14.