The sign accompanying the Stardust sample return capsule. It reads
Comet Sample Return Capsule
Stardust was the
first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to returning extraterrestrial
material from beyond the Moon. It collected samples from Comet Wild 2 and
interstellar dust. Launched in 1999, it returned to Earth seven years later,
parachuting to a landing in the Utah desert in 2006.
The Stardust return system has six major components: a heat shield, back
shell, sample canister, sample collector grids, parachute system, and avionics.
The canister containing the samples was sealed in an exterior shell that
protected them from the heat of reentry.
The material Stardust returned may date from the formation of the solar system.
Scientific studies of the samples are altering our understanding of the
universe. One major discovery is that ice-rich comets, the coldest and most
distant bodies in the solar system, also contain fragments of these same
Transferred from NASA
The collector grid exhibited here is shown deployed for flight and rotated 180
degrees for display, with the dust-impact side facing you.
To capture cometary and interstellar dust samples, Stardust used a porous,
silicon-based material called aerogel. The lightest solid ever created,
aerogel has a spongelike structure that is 99 percent empty space and only
slightly denser than air. The cometary particle grid (at the end of the
capsule's arm) held 132 aerogel tiles. The interstellar particle grid (not
included here) held 132 slightly thinner ones.
As part of its public outreach program, Stardust carried two sets of microchips
etched with the names of over a million people who responded to a "Send your
Name to a Comet" campaign. All 57,217 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in
Washington, D.C., are also included. Two identical sets of two chips were
flown. One set returned to Earth in this capsule; the other remains on the
main spacecraft in space.
The "Stardust at Home" project allows direct public participation in mission
science. People can search for particles within the aerojet collectors from
their home computers, thereby aiding scientists studying the samples.