Sunday, January 15, 2006

Amazing Stardust

Sometimes we shake our heads and wonder how humans could ever be so blindly destructive - of this planet and of each other. And other times we shake our heads in just the same way, and wonder at the truly extraordinary things we accomplish.

Early this morning, somewhere in the middle of a muddy Utah desert, a container from the Stardust explorer touched down and delivered its cargo of comet and star dust. This treasure trove of scientific data represents mission accomplished for the $212 million Stardust mission.
How did NASA spend that $212 million?
After its launching in 1999, the Stardust circled the Sun three times and even flew by the Earth in 2001 for a gravity boost to rendezvous with the comet Wild 2 near Jupiter. The spacecraft came within 149 miles of the comet on Jan. 2, 2004, deploying shields to protect itself from cometary dust while extending a collector filled with a material called aerogel. This low-density silicon material, called "glass smoke" because it is composed of 99.8 percent air, gently slowed and trapped particles without significantly altering or damaging them.

I confess that the process, even reading it a second time, inspires awe (no doubt in part because it's so far beyond my scope of technical understanding). In the blink of an evolutionary eye Homo sapiens has emerged from a small corner of Africa and left its fingerprints on this planet and this solar system in some truly incredible ways. The Stardust mission is only one gaudy example of the ingenuity and achievement of which we are capable.

In this space I spend more time than I would like bemoaning humanity's missteps, shaking my head in dismay. Every now and then it's nice to take a step back, look up at the sky, and shake your head in amazement.


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