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Observing Stardust's Sample Return to Earth

On January 15, 2006, after more than 7 years and billions of miles of travel through space, NASA's Stardust spacecraft will release a 100-pound sample return capsule (SRC) to Earth with some precious cargo -- pristine samples of comet and interstellar dust. Stardust will provide the world's first opportunity to analyze preserved samples of the fundamental building blocks of our Solar System that formed 4.6 billion years ago.

Diagram showing Stardust descent track over northern California, Nevada and Utah.
Stardust groundtrack overview.

During the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, January 15th, the Stardust sample return capsule's entry will occur at approx. 3:00 am - 3:20 am depending on the viewing site. Peak re-entry heating is expected to occur at an altitude of 61 km, (200,000 ft or 38 statute miles). The main heating-phase occurs over northern central Nevada, somewhat west & south of the corresponding Genesis re-entry phase (Figs 1 & 2).

Because the entry occurs in the pre-dawn darkness, the influence of the moon is important for those viewing reentry. At that date & time the moon will be just past full and will be high in the sky to the southwest (66? Elevation and -133? Azimuth). For that reason, it is believed that the best observing location will be south of the ground track , placing the Moon at your back.

There will be many other acceptable viewing sites right along the I-80 corridor in Nevada beginning from Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, and Dunphy, as well as Carlin. Towns such as Elko, Nevada are close to the ground track but because Elko faces northward, it may not be as good of a viewing site. Despite what location you view the SRC entry, keep in mind that you will only see it for ~? minute using a 20 deg horizon visibility mask.

Diagram showing Stardust landing track in Utah.
Stardust groundtrack closeup.

For those setting up instruments, there are some suitable state parks such as South Fork Reservoir, which is about 16 miles south of Elko, NV that would provide public land, and the ability to set up instruments and camp. This site is located right under the flight path so the SRC would go straight overhead about 50 miles downrange from the peak heating point (peak heating is at 43 deg elevation). Whether the park is open seems to depend on snow conditions so you should check with Nevada Division of State Parks before arriving.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly the "best" viewing location, any site within the entry ground track and facing south would be more ideal.

One final note, the sonic boom takes quite a while to travel down through 40 miles of the Earth's atmosphere, so you need to expect it to sound about 3 minutes after the SRC passes overhead.

Happy viewing!

Stardust Mission Flight and Recovery Team

Last Updated: 27 June 2012


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