The return of Stardust

By Phil Plait | January 14, 2006 1:20 pm

Update 3 (last for the night; I’m tired!): The capsule landed! Strong winds blew it a bit off course, but at 2:54 local time the capsule was spotted by helicopter.

I was out with Mrs. Bad Astronomer and the Littlest Astronomer, but we missed it. I am guessing it was just too faint to see, but it’s possible we simply missed it since it was moving quickly. I can’t really be sure. Oh well! Sunday, when I have more info, I’ll post about it.

Update 2: Stardust has been spotted! Bill Keel, a professional astronomer and poster on the Bad Astronomy/Universe Today bulletin board, reports that he and his students have spotted the spacecraft when it was still 160,000 km away. He has an image posted on his website.

Update 1: Emily Lakdawalla has posted an updated timeline on her Planetary Spociety Blog.

On the evening/morning of January 14/15, the Stardust probe returns to Earth. Wanna take a look?

OK, first, what is Stardust? It’s a NASA mission launched in 1999 to get up close and personal with a comet named Wild 2 (named after its Swiss discoverer, it’s pronounced "vilt"; listen for newscasters tonight mispronouncing it as "wild"). Stardust passed within 240 kilometers of the comet’s nucleus in early 2004 and took this way cool image:

When it’s near the Sun, the comet nucleus is surrounded by a cloud of gas and dust that is emitted by the nucleus. When Stardust passed through the cloud, it extended a tennis-racket-shaped collector which snared these comet bits. Instead of a net, to snare the particles the collector used a substance called aerogel, which is extremely lightweight, resistant to heat, and able to decelerate the particles without destroying them (it’s like a super-styrofoam). Scientists want to be able to study these particles in their labs (sending a complete lab on a spaceship would be a tad pricey), so the Stardust spacecraft will eject a capsule containing the particle-laden aerogel, which will then fall to Earth.

The comet sample capsule will be ejected from the main spacecraft at 05:57 a.m. Universal time Sunday morning (9:57 p.m. Saturday night Pacific time). Four hours later, at 09:56 a.m. UT (01:56 a.m. Pacific time) it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at a whopping 46,400 km/hr (28,800 mph), making it the fastest manmade object to ever do so.

And you might get to see it! If you live in the western US or the extreme southwest part of Canada (and it’s not raining, dagnappit!) you may very well get your chance. The capsule will re-enter over the Pacific ocean off the Oregon/California coast, heading east and slightly south for a touchdown in northern Utah.

If you want to take a look, you’ll have to know where to look, and that depends on your location. The Stardust mission folks have provided a handy-dandy map to help you out:

This map tells you how high off the horizon Stardust will appear for various locations. From where I am, a little north of San Francisco, it will be roughly 15 degrees above the horizon (somewhat more than the size of your fist held at arm’s length). I may try to see it tonight, but it’ll probably be raining here. Sigh.

If you are in the right area, viewing it shouldn’t be too hard (a very detailed description is online at the NASA website). Start early, just to make sure! Start looking around 01:50 a.m. local time (and make sure you have an accurate clock!). If you are south of the re-entry line, look north. If you are north, look south. Around 1:55 or so you might be able to spot it as a faint star moving east. Within a minute or two it’ll get much brighter– but remember, the farther away you are from it, the fainter it will be. According to this graph it will get as bright as magnitude -6 — 5 times brighter than Venus! — viewed from 100 kilometers away, if you are downrange (east) of it looking straight at it. The front part of the capsule is what will be bright, so from the side it will look fainter. I am 250 km away, and will see it from the side, so I am not sure how bright it’ll be to me, but I hope to catch it with binoculars. I don’t think it’ll leave a vapor trail like a meteor would, but it might. After re-entry, it will fall the rest of the way to Earth, landing in the northern Utah desert where it will be picked up by helicopter.

For a lot more information on how to view the re-entry, get yourself over to the Stardust viewing page created by the Stardust re-entry team. It has timetables, maps, and all sorts of other things to help you see this remarkable piece of history as it falls from the sky. There is also a page with cool facts about the mission, too.

As for me, I plan on climbing up on the roof of my house (carefully, oh man, since it’ll be wet, and it’ll be late, and I’m still recovering from the AAS meeting) with binoculars, my tripod, and my camera. If it’s clear, and I get pictures, you can be sure I’ll post them as soon as I can.’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (25)

Links to this Post

  1. Moonage Spacedream | January 15, 2006
  2. Moonage SpaceDream » Blog Archive » Stardust is Home | April 21, 2007
  1. Robert Ingersoll

    I caught part of a “Coast to Coast AM” broadcast last night (1-13-06) with Richard Hoagland and George Noory talking about the Stardust probe. Hoagland was saying something about an Andromeda Strain type of situation which made me laugh. I guess since he thinks we didn’t go to the moon we didn’t take extraordinary care with the moon rocks and the astronauts to prevent such an occurrence. Hoagland went on to say something about if all comets came from the same general source as astronomers claim, then shouldn’t they all look fairly similar? He then added that they don’t which makes him wonder whether they do come from the same source. Noory made the comment that they are as different as snowflakes and Hoagland agreed. I think that defines both men’s misunderstanding of basic science. Don’t these two understand that even though snowflakes are different, they come from the same source, i.e. cloud? At this point I had to change the station as this kind of idiocy just frustrates me.

  2. Just a point: Hoagland’s sole touchpoint with reality is that he does think the Moon landings were real. However, he then claims astronauts saw giant crystal structures on the Moon. :-)

  3. RAF

    I’ll be up looking…rain or (star) shine…hopefully the weather will cooperate…

  4. HawaiiArmenian

    I’m not even going justify the last response with an answer. Giving attention to morons like that (probably a creationist), will only make them feel better about themselves.

    And now, for something completely different. I was wondering, when you click on the link to the Wild2 pic, the caption talks about the phase angle between the camera, the sun, and the comet. I’d like to know more about it. How does the phase angle effect the shadows and view of an object? Is the object viewed with sharper shadows if the phase angle is larger (pardon my astro-geometric ignorance, but I’m only a molecular biologist)? I haven’t found a proper diagram online to explain the phase angle. Perhaps BA can one day, incorporate a nifty diagram showing the differences. Till then, I’ll appreciate any further illumination on this subject.

  5. HawaiiArmenian

    Nevermind, I found a website that pretty well explains it. I guess if you substitute the Earth as the camera, and the moon as the object being viewed (whether it be the comet Wild2, or Iapetus, Rhea, etc), then the diagram makes some sense. The following link should clarify matters

  6. HawaiiArmenian

    Whatever grievance that you’re attempting to rationalize, can be thrown out the window, when instead of a thoughtful constructive discussion, you’re using hostile language, and an accusatory tone. If this was truly a valid discussion, then there would be no justification for the hysterical nonsense that you’re billowing. If your views and opinions disagree with those that you’re so hostile towards, then create your own website, and send us the link. I’m sure we’re all dying to read what you have to say.

  7. Folks, please don’t respond to trolls. I will simply delete those posts, and then your responses won’t make sense. :-)

  8. Aerin

    BA, at least it’s warm enough where you are to get rain. Yesterday (January 13) the weather was sunny and in the sixties. Today it snowed and blowed alllllllll day. What was supposed to be a dusting has turned into two and a half inches, six or more in the drifts.

  9. This talk about going outside to try to see or photograph the returning
    Stardust Craft is very good for our SpaceProgram.

    I still recall in the early 1960s standing outside waiting for the Echo Satellite (Balloon) to pass over while gazing up at the night sky. Yes, I know, my age is showing. Yet, missions like Stardust rekindle a sense of awe in those of us who remember the early days of the program.

    Thanks BA for blogging on this ongoing historical event.

  10. Bob Allee

    Thanks for whacking the trolls ba.

  11. Zeb Rice

    Aw man, I live in LA and can’t see it. Why did they have to build Utah so far away? :)

  12. RAF

    Weather update for California…

    Completely clear!!!

  13. BA, you should have a “spam quiz” where people have to answer a random question to leave a comment. You could then ask: “Do you believe humans have landed on the moon?” or: “How was the universe created?”.

    But then again trolls are a lying bunch :-)

  14. Troy

    Welcome back stardust! I hope all astro-nuts on the west coast get to see it. I don’t think the samples will be interesting to anyone except academics though.
    Now that a handful of comets have been imaged I’m astonished how vastly different each one has been.

  15. MikeC

    I just want to say that Don Brownlee, the Stardust PI, is one of the best people you’ll ever find in science. When I was an undegrad, he was willing to spend hours with me talking about planetary astronomy. He’s one of those rare scientists who can find time for anyone who wants to learn. I sent him an email a few weeks ago, telling him he was one of my main inspirations to become a science teacher (a completely honest statement, btw). He sent me this week a bunch of Stardust parapernelia and a nice note. He’s the kind of scientist we need right now; honest, decent, caring about education, and free of egomaniacal tendencies.

    Congratulations to Dr. Brownlee and everyone involved in the Stardust project. I hope you are very proud of yourselves. For whatever little it’s worth, I am proud and very impressed! That we humans have the ingenutity to send a probe into the tail of a comet to gather flecks of comet-stuff, then bring it safely back to earth is really astonishing!

  16. George

    When I saw Ray Gray’s reference to watching the Echo satellite go over, it really brought back memories. My dad took me outside as a little boy and we watched for Echo. He bought me a 4″ Newtonian reflector telescope too, and I remember using it. Thinking about it now though, I cannot imagine it having a wide enough field of view to actually watch the satellite pass by in the telescope; but I do seem to remember that happening. (40+ years ago!).

    There is a lot more “stuff” orbiting these days than then, but it is still fun to me to watch and identify a moving point of light as something that humans put into space. Especially when it is something as cool as watching a fiery re-entry like Stardust. Too bad that TX (my location) was too far away to see that.

  17. Kevin from NYC

    “Folks, please don√Ę‚ā¨‚ĄĘt respond to trolls. I will simply delete those posts, and then your responses won√Ę‚ā¨‚ĄĘt make sense. ”

    AW can’t we have a troll post graveyard so we can go see them? and your right. Hawaii made no sense until I saw your post.

    Great Job BTW I always find out cool stuff on your site.

  18. bigjohn756

    I have one word for Stardust:

    Hip, hip, hooooray!!

    Oh, wait that’s three words. I got a little emotional for a minute there. Now, I can hardly wait to see what they caught.

  19. Robert Ingersoll

    BA, I just reread my post and realized that I got Richard Hoagland and Bart Sibrel mixed up over the moon hoax thing. Sorry about that. Birds of a feather, though, in my opinion. Keep up the good work!

  20. Tom OReilly

    We attempted to view the Stardust reentry from Santa Cruz California,
    from a site with unobstructed view of the northern horizon. Weather
    conditions were excellent; a few scattered clouds, but the northern
    horizon appeared to be cloud-free, major stars in circumpolar
    constellations were readily visible to the naked eye (limiting
    magnitude from about 3.5 to 4). We watched the northern sky from about
    01:50 to 02:10 PST, however did not see any sign of the reentry.

  21. Leonard L. Butts

    I’m from Missouri…. SHOW ME!

  22. Antipodean

    I’m from Australia, SHOW ME!


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