Interstellar Dust Returned to Earth for Study
January 26, 2006 -- NASA's Stardust spacecraft traveled more than 2.88 billion miles, over seven years, to bring back samples of some of the oldest materials in the solar system. Inside the canister is a collection of grains of comet and interstellar dust that will be sent to investigators worldwide for research.
These materials consist of ancient pre-solar interstellar grains and cometary dust. Analysis of the celestial specks is expected to yield important insights into the formation of the solar system. The spacecraft collected the comet remnants by flying within 149 miles of the comet Wild 2 in January 2004 and collected interstellar dust as it traveled throughout the solar system.
The same week as Stardust's arrival, NASA launched New Horizons, the first spacecraft to explore Pluto and its moon Charon, an area of great interest to scientists exploring the origins of the solar system. Recently, scientists discovered two possible new moons of Pluto using the Hubble Space Telescope.
A National Research Council report, New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, examines the nature of contemporary solar system exploration and why it remains a scientifically compelling activity today. It makes several recommendations for NASA's space exploration agenda over the next decade, prioritizing missions within different size classes, including collecting fragments of a comet and further exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper belt region Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope: Final Report recommends that to ensure continuation of the extraordinary scientific output of the Hubble Space Telescope and to prepare for its eventual de-orbiting, NASA should send a space shuttle mission, not a robotic one for repairs.