NASA capsule returns to Earth with first comet samples

A space capsule ferrying the first comet dust samples to Earth parachuted to a pre-dawn landing in the Utah desert Sunday, drawing cheers from elated scientists.

The touchdown capped a seven-year journey by NASA's Stardust spacecraft, which raced past a comet in 2004 to capture minute dust particles and store them in the capsule for the homecoming.

A helicopter recovery team was headed to the landing site to retrieve the capsule and transfer it to a clean room on the base. It will be flown later this week to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where scientists will unlock the canister containing the cosmic particles.

Once opened, they will find the microscopic bits trapped in a porous, pale-blue smokelike material made up of 99.8 percent air that was used to snag the dust in space.

The dust will be viewed under a microscope and analyzed. Because comets are frozen bodies of ice and dust from 4.6 billion years ago when the solar system was formed, researchers hope the comet dust will provide direct clues about the origin of our planetary system.

The cosmic samples were gathered from comet Wild 2 in 2004 during Stardust's seven years in space. The spacecraft used a tennis racket-sized collector mitt to snatch the dust and store it in an aluminum canister, the AP reports.

The capsule nose-dived through the Earth's atmosphere early Sunday at a record 29,000 mph, making it the fastest man-man probe to return. The mission, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, cost $212 million.

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