Space capsule carrying comet dust lands safely in U.S.

The space capsule that returned to Earth with the first dust ever fetched from a comet survived its blazing dive through Earth's atmosphere in almost perfect condition, a technician said Monday.

After a seven-year journey, the &to=' target=_blank>NASA space capsule landed safely Sunday at Dugway Proving Ground with tiny particles that scientists hope will yield clues to how the solar system formed. The capsule's high-temperature plunge from space lit up parts of the Western sky.

The cosmic samples were gathered as the Stardust spacecraft swooped past a comet known as Wild 2 in 2004. The spacecraft, which was launched in 1999, used a tennis racket-sized collector mitt to snatch the dust particles.

Technicians wearing protective masks and suits spent Monday morning at Dugway preparing the Stardust capsule and its sealed sample canister for a flight to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday.

The capsule had only had a small chip on its protective heat shield after bouncing three times in soft mud at the Dugway salt flats, said Joe Vellinga of Lockheed Martin, which built the capsule.

The capsule's inner canister, holding the precious cosmic dust samples, was in excellent shape, he said.

"Everything is very clean. It looks very pristine," Vellinga said.

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