"Comets are interesting to scientists because they're incredibly old bodies," Vidonic explains. Comets are icy balls of material left over from the birth of the solar system billions of years ago. Researchers hope a closer look at comet material will provide clues to the planets' formation, or perhaps even the origins of life on Earth.
The small Stardust spacecraft, which was launched in February 1999, caught up with comet Wild (pronounced Vilt) 2 in January 2004. Fast-flying particles from the comet, as well as interstellar dust, embedded themselves in panels of aerogel, an ultralight, ghostly- looking, Styrofoam-textured material. The craft then began its 708-million-mile journey home to Earth.
That's where Vidonic comes in. She'll head to Utah Nov. 7 to prepare another clean room to receive Stardust, which will parachute to Earth at 3 a.m. Jan. 15. The craft will then be transported to Houston. There, scientists at NASA will spend three to six months extracting and analyzing the space dust, wearing white "bunny suits" to avoid contaminating the clean room. They'll then send samples to other scientists around the world. Melissa Scott Sinclair
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