Scientists examine the aerogel tray after its arrival at JSC.
Stardust, a NASA Discovery-class mission, is the first to return samples from a comet and from interstellar space, and the first sample return mission to launch since the lunar missions 30 years ago. The mission launched on February 7, 1999 and successfully encountered comet Wild-2 on January 2, 2004. As the spacecraft passed through the comet's coma, a tray of silica aerogel was exposed to capture coma dust grains. Based on the data returned from the comet encounter, we believe that we captured thousands of grains. Following the collection, the aerogel tray was closed for return to Earth.
Analysis of data from dust detectors aboard the Ulysses and Galileo spacecraft have revealed that there is a stream of interstellar dust flowing through our solar system. During the cruise phase of the mission the Stardust spacecraft should have collected approximately 100 grains of fresh interstellar dust that were sweeping through our solar system.
The Stardust sample return capsule parachuted to Earth in the early morning hours on January 15, 2006 landing at the Utah Test & Training Range (UTTR) in western Utah. Once on the ground, the sample return capsule was placed into a dry nitrogen environment and flown to the Stardust Laboratory at JSC.