Stardust at home

By Phil Plait | January 15, 2006 11:34 am

‘Last night, after seven years and five billion kilometers, Stardust came home at last.

The comet mission sample container was ejected from the main spacecraft right on time, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and fell to the Utah desert pretty much as planned (though windy conditions blew it around a bit, making it harder to find in the desert). It was picked up and flown to the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, and eventually will find its way to a NASA lab where scientists can study the captured comet particles, and investigate the make-up of these orbiting snowballs.

I went out last night to try to see it, but I missed it. Maybe if I had planned as well as my friend Bill Keel, an astronomer at the university of Alabama, I might have seen it. He and his students caught it while it was still 160,000 km from the Earth:

(Click the image for a larger version). Once the sample capsule hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 46,000+ km/hour, it became quite a spectacle:

Hard to believe I missed it, isn’t it? I was trying to figure out why last night as I got into bed at 3:00 a.m. At first, I figured it was just too low in my sky, but then I found out about someone in San Jose who saw it. That’s south of me, farther from the re-entry point. If they saw it, I should have. It might have happened behind some mountains north of me (maybe, plus smoke coming out of my neighbor’s chimney would have helped obscure it had it been visible). But that still seemed unlikely to me.

But then I started thinking about it differently, and now I wonder. I was thinking of this as being like a satellite, moving slowly across the sky. But that’s the wrong model for this! It was moving, 13 kilometers/second, more like a meteor than a satellite. I realized suddenly the whole thing was over in ten seconds or so, and it was only really bright for less than that (I’m waiting for more reports to see if anyone timed the events). A neighbor’s friend pulled up in her car right around the time of re-entry, and I went over to ask her to turn her lights off because I was hoping to take pictures of the sky. Did it happen at that moment? I’m not sure. Arrrrg!

I should have had a watch with me. I should have paid attention to time better. I should have plotted its path using sky-mapping software so I’d have been looking at just the right spot. I should have should have should have. Given that Mrs. Bad Astronomer and the Littlest Astronomer got up to see this as well, I’d better plan things more carefully next time! I doubt I’ll be able to get Mrs. BA out for the next early morning astronomical event as it is.

In the end, I missed it because I blew it. Next time I’ll know better. I hope.

The important thing is that it’s home, it’s safe, and it’s on its way to the people best suited to study it. In fact, there’s a way you (yes, you) can help study the comet’s particles, but that’s a story for my next blog entry.’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Rant, Science

Comments (17)

  1. “In fact, there’s a way you (yes, you) can help study the comet’s particles”
    Oh no, not another screen saver?

  2. Tom OReilly

    We did not see the reentry from Santa Cruz. Weather conditions were great, and limiting magnitude was from 3.5 to 4. I expected Stardust to look like a fast-moving airplane, much like the shuttle looks during reentry – so maybe it *was* much quicker than that, and we just missed it. Another possibility is that from our location the fireball magnitude was dimmer than 2 or so; I expected something much brighter.

  3. Markus Mencke

    Quote: “In fact, there’s a way you (yes, you) can help study the comet’s particles”
    Oh no, not another screen saver? /Quote
    Well, a Boinc, at least, iirc.

    Congratulations to NASA and JPL for this achievement.

  4. Bradley

    We didn’t see it from Martinez. There was just too much haze to see it.

  5. Stuart

    Thomas, this will be way better than a screensaver.

  6. Michelle

    No, not a screen saver, you actually have to look at the images to search for the trails left by the particles. I’m so glad that someone thought to encourage the world to participate in this way.

    Anyone see this Andromeda Strain reference yet? Hilarious! Unfortunately, I’ve already heard of one ninny believing it.

  7. I’m glad it landed safely. I look foreward to the science results. Thanks for the coverage.


  8. David Sparks

    Hmm, wonder if I actually saw this thing come in. I was in lexington ky that night, my band had just finished playing a show and we were outside loading the drums in the van. while we were talking we saw what we thought to be a really bright shooting star. I thought it was odd since we were downtown and it’s pretty bright down there. it was probably around 2:30-3:00 AM on saturday…er well guess it was actually sunday.
    anyone know if it actually passed over KY?

  9. I saw the capsule clearly from East Sacramento, CA. It was light orange, fairly bright, and moving quickly, but not as fast as a meteor it seemed. It came out of the northwest just before 3 am pst and saw it for about 5 seconds before it went behind some trees. I got a picture off with my digital camera at the last second (I didn’t want to take my eyes off of the capsule to look at it through the camera. I said “there it is.” outloud…to nobody.)the results of the photo are inconclusive. I documented it all on my blog which you can link to above

    One of my earlier blog entries was all about Stardust. You can get there from the previous post links, it’s titled Stardust oddly enough. Or here’s the URL There’s links to cool media and NASA’s official mission site. You can also get all the info on volunteering to scan aerogel for particles right from that same chair that you sit on, in that same room, hour upon hour, and also info on how to submit media (videos and still shots) that you may have captured of the reentry.

  10. David, no, yuou might have seen a regular old meteor. Stardust came in west to east over the Pacific northwest, a long long way from Kentucky!

  11. RAF

    Don’t “knock your self out” about it, BA. I was VERY lucky to have seen it. I’ve also been wondering how I could have been “surprised” when I was expecting it, and have come up with a few thoughts…

    One…like you said, I “should” have been paying attention to the time…it appeared much sooner than I expected.

    Two…I was wearing my ball cap (with built-in ear coverings because it was cold) and was looking at the horizon. I didn’t expect it to be so high overhead. (If I had consulted software, I would have been better prepared.)

    Three…it was REALLY MOVING FAST!!!

    I was “lucky” because I happened to glance up and catch it, after it had already passed “overhead”. I did pre-focus my binoculars (so I wasn’t totally unprepared), so I was able to quickly look at it through them, and got an excellent view for a handfull of seconds.

    Going back to number 3…it’s really hard to describe and compare just how FAST it was moving. It was certainly faster than any plane but not “quite” as fast as a meteor/meteoroid. (I know, I know…the object itself is called a meteoroid in space and when it’s in the atmosphere, and the “glow” is called a meteor. :)) My “best guess” is that it was moving with the speed of a slow moving bolide.

  12. Bryn

    Waaaay too cloudy and rainy here in Olympia, WA to see it. :(

  13. I didn’t do too much prep, but I saw it very easily. I live in Livermore, CA (about 100 miles/160 Km south of the BA) and knew it would become visible at just under 15° elevation. I synchronized my watch with WWV and walked out to a large grassy field that’s part of a city park near my house. This is a great place to watch astronomical events since it’s about 1,000 feet (300 m) on a side, so if I want to watch someting to the west, I stand at the eastern edge. In this case, I stood on the southern edge which gave me an unobstructed view of the northern horizon.

    I started scanning with earnest at 1:56 (PST) and at about 1:56:40 it popped into view about 15° west of north. It was as bright as Venus, only yellow, and was moving (I would guess) about 1°/sec. It wasn’t over “in 10 seconds.” My estimate is that it took about 30 seconds from first appearance until it disappeared over the ENE horizon.

    It was not a subtle event. Anyone who had their eyes open and looking even vaguely in the right direction should have seen it. The moon was both full and very high. It was so bright that the sky actually had a blue cast once you became dark adapted. If you missed it, you probably timed it wrong. From the BA’s location, it was almost 20° above the horizon.

    – Jack

  14. Oops, I meant the NNE horizon in that previous post.

  15. I just went to the spot in Sacramento, CA where I saw the capsule reentry and did a rough estimate of the degree width of the visible northern sky and it was about 3 fist widths. My fists are hammier than most but we’ll stick with that handy old rule of thumb and say one fist(no thumb) = 10 degrees. It took less than six seconds for the capsule to cross those 30 degrees (4 or 5 seconds was my estimate ((documented on my blog (((http:\ ))immediately after the event). I wasn’t timing it instrumentally (can I use that here?) so my estimate, of course, may not be completely accurate. But at the rate of speed you estimated it would have taken half a minute to travel those 30 degrees, and I’m 100% certain that it did not take that long.

    At your speed estimate it would have taken just under 34 seconds to travel from Polaris to the northern horizon of the park near your house. Or about 25 seconds to fly through Orion. It was moving much faster than that.

    It was faster than a satellite but not as fast as a meteor.

    BTW. While I find it somewhat too harsh, I do agree with the second sentence of your last paragraph.

  16. Cortland Richmond

    It was visible quite a bit longer than meteors.

    North 38 deg 31.458 minutes
    West 122 degrees 32.990 minutes
    Altitude 2014 feet

    Visible as:
    Small red fireball, no visible trail
    From 09:57:05Z to 09:57:39

    I may have taken my eyes off the sky a moment and started late.

    Had a 6X45 camera with 60 mm lens set up pointing pretty much where Polaris would have appeared had the Moon not been so bright, though I’d have done better to use a wider angle lens and smaller film — 24mm on a 35mm camera would have caught the whole thing. And while on the shoulda woudla coulda… I accidentally left the camera at F8. On top of only finding g ASA100 film in the store, I think it’ll take some pushing.

    Ad Astra — per Aspirin!


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