Press Release

UK scientists all set for New Year encounter with a comet

By SpaceRef Editor
December 16, 2003
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UK scientists all set for New Year encounter with a comet

On January 2nd 2004 the NASA space mission, STARDUST, will fly through
comet Wild 2, capturing interstellar particles and dust and returning
them to Earth in 2006. Space scientists from the Open University and
University of Kent have developed one of the instruments which will help
tell us more about comets and the evolution of our own solar system and,
critical for STARDUST, its survival in the close fly-by of the comet.

Launched in February 1999, STARDUST is the first mission designed to
bring samples back from a known comet. The study of comets provides a
window into the past as they are the best preserved raw materials in the
Solar System. The cometary and interstellar dust samples collected will
help provide answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the
solar system.

Scientists from the Open University and University of Kent have
developed one set of sensors for the Dust Flux Monitor Instrument (DFMI)
built by the University of Chicago, and the software to analyse the
data. The DFMI, part funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy
Research Council (PPARC) will record the distribution and sizes of
particles on its journey through the centre, or coma, of the comet.

Professor Tony McDonnell and Dr Simon Green from the Open
University’s Planetary and Space Science Research Institute
(PSSRI), will be at the mission command centre, the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in California, when the encounter with Wild 2 begins.

Dr Green explains “By combining the information about each of the
tiny grains of dust captured by STARDUST we will discover more about the
formation of stars, planets and our solar system.”

Professor Tony McDonnell said “The information derived from the
signals will tell us on the night if the dust shield has been critically

Cometary particles will be captured on a tennis racket like grid which
contains a substance called aerogel – the lightest solid in the
Universe! This is a porous material that allows the particles to become
embedded with minimum damage. This means that on their return to Earth
they will be as near as possible to their original state.

Once the samples are captured a clam-like shell closes around them. The
capsule then returns to Earth in January 2006 where it will land at the
US Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. Once collected, the samples
will be taken to the planetary material curatorial facility at NASA’s
Johnson Space Centre, Houston, where they will be carefully stored and

The Open University team hope to be involved in analysing the samples
that return to Earth in January 2006.

UK scientists, including a team from the Open University, are also
involved with the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission which will
follow and land on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This mission is due to
be launched on 26th February 2004.

SpaceRef staff editor.