When NASA's Stardust sample return capsule fireballs toward a pre-dawn Utah landing this Sunday, ground and airborne observers are ready to record the spectacular sky diving, human-made meteor.
Much is to be gained by watching the capsule's high-speed reentry. Insight can be gained on designing NASA's post-shuttle craft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, as well as probe the delivery of organics for life's origin by measuring the physical conditions of the capsule as it torches through the sky.
The Stardust "mother ship" is set to release its sample-containing return capsule on January 14 at 10:57 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (MST).
At that time the spacecraft is 68,805 miles (110,728 kilometers) from Earth. The capsule's entry into Earth's atmosphere will occur at approximately 2:57 a.m. MST on January 15, touching down at approximately 3:12 a.m. MST.
The 101-pound (46-kilogram) Stardust capsule is a speed demon.
When it slams into the atmosphere, it will be traveling at a blistering 28,860 miles per hour (46,440 kilometers per hour) - the greatest velocity ever attained by any human-made object diving into Earth's atmosphere on record.
The peak reentry heating of the capsule is expected to occur at an altitude of 200,000 feet (61 kilometers) above the Earth. The main heating-phase occurs over northern central Nevada.
After zooming across the sky, the capsule's planned landing site is the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), southwest of Salt Lake City. Falling slowly by means of a deployed parachute system, the Stardust capsule will settle down to the ground at UTTC and then picked up by a recovery team.
The entry duration - from hitting the atmosphere to parachute touchdown -- is roughly 14 minutes, 20 seconds.
Getting an eye-full
Dispatched from the NASA Ames Research Center, a NASA DC-8 aircraft will carry a team of scientists and special equipment to observe the Stardust sample capsule as it rocket's through Earth's atmosphere and flies to a landing in the Utah desert.
According to various sources, here are a few tips on taking part in the Stardust capsule's dazzling plunge, visible from central California through central Oregon, on through Nevada and into Utah.
The Stardust capsule will approach the Utah landing zone from a westerly direction.
The best opportunities for viewing the reentry will be along Highway 80 between Carlin, Nevada and Elko, Nevada and further east to the Utah border. The peak brightness of the falling capsule will decrease further from Carlin, lessening to about the brightness of Venus when seen from Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City. Viewing will not be as good at sites east of Carlin where the craft will be seen from behind.
There will be many other acceptable viewing sites right along the I-80 corridor in Nevada beginning from Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, and Dunphy, as well as Carlin. Towns such as Elko, Nevada are close to the ground track but because Elko faces northward, it may not be as good of a viewing site.
Look and listen
It has been noted that there are relatively few good state parks along the capsule's path that provide public land where folks could set up instruments and stay for a while.
One prospect is Nevada's South Fork Reservoir, which is about 16 miles south of Elko. This site is right under the projected trajectory of the Stardust sample capsule as it flies straight overhead about 50 miles downrange from the peak heating point. Whether the park is open may well depend on snow conditions, so those interested in this area should check with Nevada Division of State Parks.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly the "best" viewing location, any site within the entry ground track and facing south would be more ideal.
Reentry experts say that Stardust's sonic boom takes quite a while to travel down through Earth's atmosphere. That being the case, ground observers should listen for the boom about three-minutes after the capsule passes overhead.
Incredibly bright...historically significant
One person that's in all eyes/all ears-mode for the sky show is Ron Dantowitz, Director of the Clay Center Observatory at Dexter and Southfield Schools in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Dantowitz is leader of a ground crew that departed Thursday from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Stationing themselves in Elko, the team will choose their observing site as the weather dictates.
"It's always a thrill when you see a random shooting star. But here's one that you don't have to go outside and wait for hours hoping to see," Dantowitz told SPACE.com. "This should be incredibly bright...and historically significant."
Dantowitz and his fellow observers are set to use a unique blend of ground-based imaging tools. "We built this all ourselves," he said.
Welcome mat is out
The custom-built hardware involves seven cameras and three spectrographs that observe in the ultraviolet, to the visible, all the way to infrared.
The specially-designed software that locks the equipment onto the speeding Stardust capsule is the result of a decade's work, Dantowitz said. "Once we find something, we can keep on it."
Dantowitz said data collected will be useful for a range of applications, from understanding the processes experienced by incoming meteors to designing the heat shield for NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle.
The public is encouraged to take part in watching the capsule reentry, Dantowitz said. Digital video and still-shot cameras, telescopes, binoculars, radio gear - all equipment is welcomed.
"We want to get as many people out to see this as possible, Dantowitz said. "Every bit of data is useful. You never know what someone might record. This should be quite beautiful."
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