An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine
by Martin Horejsi of  Martin Horejsi's Meteorite and Tektite Books



Beginning in 1998, I have been part of the education outreach effort of the Stardust Mission. Since coming on board the mission through a competitive process, I have enjoyed many Stardust experiences during the seven-year flight. Now that the capsule is safely back home, the journey continues through the sample return.

The Stardust from this past month included a four-day scientific celebration as the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) was recovered in Utah during a magical break in the weather-after a flawless release in space and a stunning atmospheric flight and perfect landing. The capsule was flown to Houston where it was opened and finally, after four and a half billion years, the secrets of the solar system will be shared through particles measured in microns.

For this installment of the Accretion Desk, I am sharing some of my Stardust scrapbook. While the first seven years of the mission were exciting, the re Connection with earth was the greatest! The mission scientists, engineers, navigators, and educators made this mission a success. While some might want to argue the contribution educators made to the mission, in fact, it was the education outreach plans for the Stardust Mission that broke the tie securing funding to launch Stardust.

So without further delay, here are just a few of my Stardust Memories.

The mural on the wall in building 31 of the Johnson Space Center depicts the events that took place with the moon rocks, from lunar collection to earth-based study. Until now, the moon landings of 1969-72 were the last and only of the sample-return missions to another solar system body. But since Stardust has returned both Cometary material and interstellar dust particles from a known region of space it is only fitting that we remember upon whose shoulders they stand.

As Stardust investigators from the Stardust mission, Don Brownlee (r) and Scott Sanford (l) walk past the mural, they too will answer age-old questions about the solar system, ourselves and beyond.

In a most memorable convergence of people in time, Paul Wild who discovered comet Wild2 in 1978, and Carolyn Shoemaker, the discoverer of more comets than anyone else on this planet build a model comet with dry ice, ammonia and sand.

Dr. Wild and a younger me in Florida for the Launch of Stardust. The late Fred Whipple was also at the launch, but I did not have the chance to talk with him, only see him. It was Dr. Whipple's idea of layering materials to distribute the shock of impact that made possible the flying through a comet's coma without destroying the spacecraft. Originally designed to protect tanks in battle, the composite layers on Stardust carried his name as the Whipple Shields.

In the above image, Carolyn Shoemaker is describing her discovery of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet which, as we all know, later smashed into Jupiter in full view of the Hubble Space Telescope, and minutes later to those on earth.

Its sad that Carolyn's late husband, the famous Eugene Shoemaker did not live to experience Stardust. Carolyn and Gene were a powerhouse of astronomical talent, and Gene was a primary force in defining the characterists of a meteorite crater.

Dr. Peter Tsou, the Stardust Deputy Principle Investigator, holds the backup aerogel collector. Although not flown on Stardust, this collector, complete with aerogel, is identical to the one that collected the comet and interstellar dust particles. Peter is a pioneer in the field of aerogel creation and application. There is a wonderful with Peter in QuickTime format on the Starust website.

This specific backup collector grid was used to build the tools necessary to handle the primary collector upon its return from space. And it's a good thing to because there were many surprises in store as the team tried to work with the collector in a cleanroom.


In this closeup view of the aerogel collector cells on the backup tray, which according to Peter, is actually in worse condition then the one that flew on Stardust because this tray has suffered the torture of earthly travels .

I am Stardust- both figuratively and literally. Organic molecules if not life itself were born in stars, and carried in comets. Now all I need is a comet to fly through. Here comet, comet, comet. Here comet....

Oh, don't worry about the aerogel. This collector is covered with Plexiglas on both sides.

The man who dreamed of Stardust! Dr. Don Brownlee is the Principal Investigator of Stardust and for whom Brownlee Particles are named.

Since comets and interstellar dust contain material older than the earth, I figured that my CV3 specimen with a huge CAI might interest the folks here . It did.

I left the stone with the famous meteorite researcher and Stardust Co-investigator and Stardust Curator Dr. Mike Zolinsky at Johnson Space Center. Mike happens to have an interest in material such as this CV3 especially for the fine-grained matrix surrounding the CAI.

The goofball on the left is me. The serious scientist on the right is Mike Zolensky. We just watched a presentation by Don Brownlee about comet Wild2 and Stardust during dinner.

The aerogel collection tray has only been open for a day having arrived back to earth from a three billion mile journey just a few days earlier. Note the image on the screen behind us. It is one of the first images taken of a major hit on the collector grid.

The excitement tonight is beyond description, especially when in 3-D!

Here Mike describes the largest score in the aerogel collector. This bug-splat of comet on Stardust's windshield represents a particle several millimeters in size. Although it sounds small, there is a dump truck load of material here for particle scientists.

As more time was spent inspecting the collector grid, Don noticed that there were several distinct but different particle tracks in the aerogel. Here Don is describing and drawing the various track shapes from comet grains somewhat like the red sketch in the upper left of the paper. I had Don sign the paper shown above, and it now hangs in my office.

The curation engineer on the recovery team is Dr. Karen McNamara. In the above picture, Karen is detailing the exciting events of the Stardust SRC recovery. The mission was blessed with a few moments of clear weather, just enough for the capsule to drop through the earth's atmosphere and be collected. By the time the team was back indoors at Dougway, it was snowing again.

The recovery team had planned and trained for every possible contingency especially given the hard landing of the Genesis mission. Luckily, most of the training was just, as one team engineer put it, wasted time.

Here is the typical garb for a night of spacecraft catching during a Utah winter.

Flanked by Scott and Don, I am wearing what Scott wore as part of the Stardust Recovery Team. Underneath the blaze-orange parka and double gloves, I was wearing heavy insulated coveralls, rubber kneepads, and heavy boots (which still had Utah mud on them). The respirator is for protection from sulphur dioxide that could off gas from the SRC's battery if damaged, and the headlight was in case the "night sun" helicopter spotlight was not available.


For the first time ever, material from known comets will be analyzed using the state of the art in instrumentation. In fact, just one of the myriad of reasons for returning a sample to earth is to inspect it with instruments and techniques much better than were available at the time of launch (not to mention when the time the spacecraft was built, or even the time the final designs were approved which is sometimes many years prior to launch).

This rat's nest of wires and tubes is a noble gas mass spectrometer at Johnson Space Center. In the foreground sits a giant electromagnet that has the job of separating out the various isotopes of the noble gasses according to isotopic mass.

A large portion of the captured material from Stardust will be preserved for future generations to study with, no doubt, machines and methods so superior to ours today that it will seem the scientist of 2006 were brilliant to collect and preserve samples that they had such poor tools with which to study it.


Who drove the Stardust spacecraft? Why Alan Cheuvront of course. In a wonderful presentation he shared behind the scenes stories about navigating the spacecraft from launch to SRC separation.

In the picture on the screen, Alan is wearing a hat, meaning that the SRC has been released and his job is over. However, there seems to be some concern about the weather in Utah. His face is full of obvious concern because it was his team that decided to cut the capsule free from the mothership.

Had he thought otherwise and kept the SRC on the mothership, then Stardust would have entered a solar orbit with the capsule attached and we here on earth would have another crack at recovering the comet sample in another three or four years from now.

This electron microscope at the Johnson Space Center was used to do much of the famous work on the ALH84001 meteorite. And, as this photo was taken, an actual piece of ALH84001 is in the vacuum chamber and a picture of carbonates on the meteorite are on the TV screen.

Everett Gibson is one of the authors on the famous paper that proposed evidence of life was found on a martian meteorite. He says that even today, there is more evidence than ever that his speculations are correct. And other meteorites including Nakhla are supporting his ideas.

On a side note, it was Everett who lost notebooks and other science documents when an student intern stole a 600 pound safe from his lab. A safe that contained lunar and martian material as well has his notes. I think Everett said the young man is four years through his nine year prison sentence.

On yet another side note, I asked him what he thought of the book Deception Point by Dan Brown. Everett just laughed and said it was an enjoyable book and they took my idea.

As if all the Stardust excitement was not enough, during a lunch break, the New Horizons Mission to Pluto and beyond launched. I guess maybe it was more of a Launch Break.

NASA TV was everywhere, as you might expect, so watching the launch on NASA TV in a NASA facility full of NASA people who were there for another NASA mission was as close to being at the NASA launch as you can get without actually being there.

The B side of the Stardust collection grid was for collecting interstellar dust. Prior to Stardust, the best way to collect such material was from special gooey plates on the wings of high-flying aircraft such as the U2. However, one never knew from exactly where the particles came, and they had to be painstakingly plucked from a debris field of terrestrial matter.

Above is a collection plate from a high flight. Unfortunately, as noted in pen on the case, this particular sample was exposed to all the debris in the air from way up high to the ground since the pilot forgot to close the sample case prior to landing. The pen writing on the case says "Landed open."

Back in my street clothes, Scott, Don and I are standing outside the Stardust Laboratory. A small room that had a big impact in world news over the past couple days.

Welcome to history making. Inside the door pictured above is a small semi-clean observation room. If you look just to the left of the white window beam, you can see the side A Stardust sample return aerogel tray inside the real clean room.

The Holey Grail!

Small carrot-shaped tracks pepper the aerogel, and at the bottom of each is a piece of comet, some bigger than others.

The information tucked into each particle will be extracted only after the particle itself can be extracted from the aerogel. Instead of just knocking the collector on the edge of a kitchen sink like you would with an ice cube tray, each of the more than 100 pieces of aerogel on side A will be cut free of the tray and lifted out on a piece of aluminum foil that lines each pocket.

In this picture, the scientist is cutting the foil surrounding a less-important block of aerogel. The first one to be removed was deemed to contain less material than the others and thus a low risk of loosing important material if something goes awry. The process went according to plan, and moments later, the first cube of aerogel popped free from the grid.

One must remember that a good logo for NASA would be "Never been there...before. Never done that...before."

This picture is of a sliver of foil removed from around an aerogel cell. The foil preserves a record of impacts and is also an important contribution to space science. Since the collector has a known history, and the impact speed for all the particles was the same, the impacts on the foil recorded density of particles of various sizes from a known distance from a comet nucleus.

Don is using a walkie-talkie to communicate with the observation room. He is describing which specific aerogel cell will be removed.

Pointing to a map of the collector, it is easy to see that one of the cells is just a tiny picture of what was collected.

Like kids in a candy store, the safest place to keep their hands is behind their backs. It would be so easy to just reach in an pop out a aerogel cell with your thumb. In fact, that was roughly how they were installed into the tray in the first place. But after waiting seven years (or much longer for Don Brownlee since he has dreamed of just such a mission for decades!) this is no time to hurry.

Here Mike Zolinsky studies a sample under one of the many microscopes in the clean room. Several small fragments of aerogel were in the pan under the collection grid. It was in those broken fragments of somewhat unknown origin that the first microscopic observations were made.

Don is a happy camper and his excitement shows when he does things like photographing those outside the cleanroom who are photographing him inside the cleanroom.

There is no shortage of amazing people surrounding the Stardust mission.

The company Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft, but a person had to in charge. That person pictured (on the right) is Joe Vellinga who is the Lockheed Martin Program Manager for Stardust. And Joe delivered! Stardust did what it was supposed to do, on time and under budget.

Ken Atkins (on the left) was the Stardust project manager from 1995 until launch. And it was Ken who suggested that the names of all 58,214 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam be included one of the microchips launched on Stardust.

I had never met Jack Warren before this trip, but his reputation was well known. Jack had the honor to be the first person to open the first box of moon rocks brought back by the Apollo 11 crew, the first mission to the moon! Why him. Because he is very good at what he does.

Notice the blue cloth in his left hand. Those are the shoe covers required in the semi-clean room. If one moves from the semi-clean room to the Stardust cleanroom, the shoe covers are covered yet again by a complete shoe cover.

Looking into Mike's office, I noticed the black container holding the CV3 slice with the huge CAI that I gave him three days ago is on his desk. I wonder why he has not gotten around to studying to it yet?



The Accretion Desk welcomes all comments and feedback.