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"By analyzing interstellar dust, we can understand our own origins," said Andrew Westphal, a planetary scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Just as people go to Africa to look for fossil hominids, say, 4.5 million years old, trying to understand the origins of humanity, we want to look at stuff that helped form the solar system 4.5 billion years ago." The image at the top of the page image shows a diffraction pattern from the first interstellar dust candidate the Comet Orion, collected by NASA's Stardust spacecraft in 2004 (which we're posting as a companion to today's fascinating feature: Life In the Universe --"Precursor Molecules to DNA Could Have Been Delivered Millions of Years Ago")
STARDUST MISSION STATUS February 7, 1999 NASA's Stardust spacecraft successfully shot into a clear blue sky atop a Delta II rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Station at 4:04:15 p.m. EST (1:04:15 p.m. PST) today to become the first U.S. mission destined for a comet, and the first-ever spacecraft sent to bring a sample of a comet sample back to Earth.
The primary goal of the Stardust mission was to collect samples of a comet and return them to Earth for laboratory analysis. Comets are ancient bodies of frozen ice and dust that formed beyond the orbit of the most distant planet. They were expected to contain materials that the solar system formed from, preserved in ice for billions of years. When the international team of 200 scientists began examination of the returned particles, we found that the particles were indeed ancient building blocks of the solar system but the nature and origin of the particles was quite unexpected. Before the mission, there were very good reasons to believe that we knew what comets would be made of and there was a general expectation was that the particles collected from comet Wild 2 would be mainly be dust that formed around other stars, dust that was older than the Sun. Such particles are called stardust or pre-solar grains and this was the main reason why the mission was named Stardust.