NASA's Stardust mission is nearing Earth after a four billion kilometer round-trip journey to bring back comet dust samples. Viewers in California, Oregon, and Nevada have a chance to see the fiery entry of the return capsule into Earth's atmosphere in the early morning of Sunday January 15 (approximately 2 a.m. PST, 3 a.m. MST).
Many astrobiologists are looking forward to this first sample of some of the pristine building blocks of life. "Locked within the cometary particles is unique chemical and physical information that could be the record of the formation of the planets and the materials from which they were made," said Dr. Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator at the University of Washington, Seattle.
The velocity of the sample return capsule, as it enters Earth's atmosphere at 46 thousand kilometers per hour, will be the fastest of any human-made object on record. It surpasses the record set in May 1969 during the return of the Apollo 10 command module.
On Jan 15 at 12:57 a.m. EST, Stardust will release its sample return capsule. Four hours later, the capsule will enter Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, heading for its touchdown point in Utah. Assuming successful entry, the capsule will release a drogue parachute at approximately 32 kilometers altitude. Once the capsule has descended to about 3 kilometers, the main parachute will deploy. The capsule is scheduled to land on the Utah desert at 3:12 a.m. MST, and it will then be flown by helicopter to the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground for initial processing. If weather does not allow helicopters to fly, special off-road vehicles will retrieve the capsule and return it to Dugway. Samples will then be moved to a special laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, where they will be preserved and studied.
Observers in the northern part of California and Nevada hope for a sight of the capsule moving west to east at about 2 a.m. PST. The track of the entry extends from the north coast of California in the direction of Salt Lake City, a little north of the route of highway I-80. It is predicted to be brightest as seen from Nevada. The following links give more details on viewing opportunities and on the Stardust mission itself.