NASA capsule to return first comet samples to Earth

The last time &to=' target=_blank>NASA scientists hunkered down at a remote Utah Army base, they stared wide-eyed as a space probe carrying solar wind atoms crashed into the salt flats and split open like a giant clamshell.

Flash forward two years.

With nerves on edge, scientists anxiously awaited the return of another space probe, this one named Stardust and bearing the first comet dust ever carried to Earth. A capsule bearing those samples was to be released late Saturday and expected to land on the Army's Dugway Proving Ground early Sunday.

Memories of the ill-fated 2004 Genesis landing, in which the space probe's parachutes failed to open, are still vivid.

Scientists found that gravity switches that had been installed incorrectly caused the failure. Despite the mishap, they were able to salvage the tiny cosmic samples for study.

After that, engineers performed a thorough check on Stardust's systems, and they felt certain it wouldn't suffer the same fate as Genesis.

"I don't think you can ignore the Genesis situation. You just have to embrace it and apply the lessons learned from it," said Ed Hirst, mission system manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the $212 million (Ђ176 million) project.

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