A space capsule bearing comet and star dust successfully made a parachute landing in the Utah desert before dawn today, completing a 7-year journey of almost 3 billion miles that could provide clues to the formation of the solar system. ...After its launch in 1999, Stardust circled the sun three times and even flew by Earth in 2001 for a gravity boost to rendezvous with comet Wild 2 near Jupiter. The spacecraft came within 149 miles of the comet on Jan. 2, 2004, deploying shields to protect itself from cometary dust while extending a collector filled with a material called aerogel. This low-density silicon material, called "glass smoke" because it is composed of 99.8% air, gently slowed and trapped particles without significantly altering or damaging them.
During its long cruise periods, Stardust also spent 195 days collecting the particles from stars that constantly flow through the solar system from far out in space.
Scientists believe about a million samples of comet and interstellar dust, most of them less than one-tenth the width of a human hair, are locked inside the capsule. Researchers around the world are awaiting the samples, hoping they will provide clues to the origin of the planets and other bodies in the solar system.
The grains are believed to be pristine remains of the birth of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. Studying comets not only provides clues to how the solar system was formed but could also help explain how certain materials and conditions combined to form life, researchers said. [LINK in case you have a NYT account]The Intelligent Design fiends are really gonna like this! I can't wait to hear their arguments about how Genesis gives sufficient evidenct to dispute science this time.