Landing Day: NASA's Stardust Probe Returns to Earth

NASA'sStardust spacecraft successfully landed in the Utah desert in the predawn hoursof Jan. 15, 2005. Tucked aboard the probe were samples of comet material andinterstellar dust, which scientists are eager to study.

Here's howthe landing day unfolded for the probe beginning with the most recent update:

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12:57 a.m. Stardust spacecraft releases return capsule on a path towards Earth.

1:18 a.m. Stardust spacecraft fires thrusters to put in into orbit around sun.

4:57 a.m. Return capsule enters Earth atmosphere.

5 a.m. Return capsule's first parachute, or drogue, deploys.

5:05 a.m. Capsule's main parachute deploys.

5:12 a.m. Return capsule lands inside U.S. Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range.

Approximately 5:22 a.m. Helicopter and crew land near return capsule.

Approximately 7:20 a.m. Return capsule arrives by helicopter to temporary cleanroom at Michael Army Air Field

January 15. 2006 UPDATE:5:35 a.m EST

Search is on for Capsule

The Stardust sample returncapsule successfully skyrocketed through the Earth's atmosphere and has landedunder parachute within the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). An unofficialtouch down was 5:10 a.m. EST.

There was palpableheavy-breathing here at the Lockheed Martin Mission Support Area, waiting for adrogue parachute to being stabilizing the falling capsule for its mainparachute.

"Everything worked sowell. What an exciting moment," said, Allan Cheuvront, Stardust spacecraftengineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Lockheed Martin SpaceSystems, Denver, developed and operated the spacecraft. In September 2004, thecompany's Genesis spacecraft smashed into Utah due to improper placement ofrecovery system components.

Helicopters dispatched tothe capsule's landing site have detected it's beacon.

January 15. 2006 UPDATE:5:12 a.m EST

Stardust Capsule HasLanded

Stardust's sample capsulehas landed at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) at theU.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, southwest of Salt Lake City.

January 15. 2006 UPDATE:5:00 a.m EST

Capsule Fireballs intoAtmosphere

Stardust's sample capsulehas 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 ForceUtah Test and Training Range (UTTR) at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground,southwest of Salt Lake City.

The sky show was to bevisible from central California through central Oregon, on through Nevada and into Utah.

The Stardust sample returncapsule has the highest return speed--some 29,000 miles per hour (12.8kilometers per second) of any human-made Earth reentry object to date.

A key element of thecapsule is its heat shield, which resembles a blunt-nosed cone that protects itfrom the intense heat and friction that is generated during Earth reentry. Theheat shield is comprised of two parts: a lightweight aeroshell structure and athermal protection system (TPS). The TPS is a flight-qualified version of thehigh-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 retrievaloperations once the hardware is on the desert floor.

The landing area has seen amix of weather - with winds at various altitudes likely to be encountered bythe capsule once under parachute.

The capsule is slated totouch down at 5:12 a.m. EST.

January 15. 2006 UPDATE:2:22 a.m EST

Stardust Main SpacecraftSent into Solar Orbit

With NASA's Stardust'ssample return capsule now headed toward Earth, the main spacecraft has nudgeditself into a "divert maneuver". That will keep the mother craft fromhitting Earth, placing it on an orbit around the Sun.

"We achieved what wewanted to do...the burn went right on time," Allan Cheuvront, Stardustspacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems told SPACE.comshortly after the mother ship was placed on its new trajectory.

After nearly seven years ofspace travel, the solar-powered Stardust and onboard gear--including anoperational navigation camera--have weathered well. An expected 44 pounds (20kilograms) of fuel should be left onboard after the divert maneuver.

"NASA has no currentplans for an extended mission," said Tom Morgan, Stardust ProgramScientist and Executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. However,individuals who wish to propose post-return uses for the spacecraft to NASA maysubmit a proposal for the use of the spacecraft in response to the currentDiscovery Announcement of Opportunity, a document released on January 3, 2006,Morgan told via email.

"If NASA declines toaccept any of these proposals--or if none are submitted--the spacecraft will bedecommissioned," Morgan said.

January 15. 2006 UPDATE:1:30 a.m EST

Capsule Free!

The Stardust spacecraft hasreleased its 101-pound (46-kilogram) sample return capsule. Mission controllershere at Lockheed Martin's Mission Support Area (MSA) commanded the spacecraftto begin a computer-controlled sequence that led to the ejection of the capsuleat 12:57 EST.

Two cable cutters werefired on the spacecraft to sever a cable harness that connects the capsule tothe spacecraft. Three retention bolts were also fired to set free the capsulefrom the Stardust mother ship. Springs aboard the spacecraft pushed the capsuleaway.

"Physics has takenover," said one controller. Thumbs up hit the air from individuals attheir respective sites as telemetry indicated the separation. "It workedthe way it was supposed to," another controller said.

The capsule - carrying itsprecious cargo of interstellar and comet particles - was spun up like a top atseparation - helping to stabilize the capsule's orientation.

At 4:57 am EST, four hoursafter being released by the Stardust spacecraft, the capsule will enter Earth'satmosphere 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 doingwell," said Allan Cheuvront, Stardust spacecraft engineer at LockheedMartin Space Systems. After polling command and control teams here, a"go" decision has been made to release the sample return capsule, hesaid. The spacecraft's last maneuver has placed it precisely on track for deploymentof the capsule.

Meanwhile, reports are thata front is moving on into the Utah recovery site. Light showers may bedeveloping, as well as strong winds. As of this time, use of helicopterrecovery teams remains the plan.

January 14. 2006 UPDATE:3:45 p.m EST

A latenight thruster firing January 13 aboard the Stardust spacecraft went without ahitch. Mission navigators carried out the last planned trajectory correctionmaneuver of the Earth approaching spacecraft, advised Allan Cheuvront, Stardustspacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. He noted it was a nominalburn.

LockheedMartin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operates the spacecraft.

The thruster firing isdesigned to precisely place the Stardust sample return capsule within itsdesignated reentry corridor as it plunges into Earth's atmosphere. The capsuleis targeted to land within the high desert of the Utah Test & Training Range.

If mission navigators feelanother thruster firing is needed, there is the opportunity to conduct a final"contingency" maneuver on January 14.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.