The craft spent 7 years in space, traveling almost 3 billion miles and collecting precious bits of comet dust while flying through the tail of the comet Wild 2 in 2004. Now scientists, like Stardust principal investigator Dr. Donald Brownlee, are ready to begin studying the particles after opening a capsule containing a tennis-racket sized sample tray earlier this week.
"We were the first people in the history of this planet to see comet dust in-hand."
Scientists expect to find more than a million comet particles as they study the sample tray using powerful microscopes. They can actually see where some of the larger particles impacted a special gel that protected them on their way back to earth.
"These small extraterrestrial particles, the comet particles that we've seen, we believe are black. Most primitive solar system materials are black. The asteroids and the comets have a color similar to Xerox toner. With your eye, all you'll see is a black rock. It's using the magic of all these fantastic tools that you can get in and really study them."
The entire mission cost $200 million, cheap by most standards for a project that could yield mountains of scientific information about the make-up of comets. Brownlee says the fundamental product of the Stardust mission is knowledge.
"Right now you go to new astronomy textbooks and they have pictures of the comet that we took two years ago. Our mission has already changed the concept of comets. We now have samples from the very edge of the solar system."
Unlike research in the past that included a small number of scientists studying samples, the comet particles will be sent all over the world to scientists who will do their own research. Stardust Curator and Co-Investigator Dr. Michael Zolensky says results will come out quickly.
"We have something like 150 scientists worldwide poised to grab these samples in their own lab and study them and we're doing everything. You'll be seeing lots and lots of information coming out very quickly from these samples. You won't have to wait months and months to find out what we found out."
Scientists say along with particles, they may find comet water residue from ice particles that hit the tray and then melted.