Comet capsule to produce light show over Western U.S.
By ALICIA CHANG, AP Science Writer
Last Updated 11:30 am PST Sunday, January 8, 2006
LOS ANGELES (AP) - When a NASA capsule hauling comet and interstellar dust plummets through the Earth's atmosphere this weekend, residents in large sweeps of the West will witness a cosmic spectacle.
During its blazing re-entry at 1:57 a.m. PST Sunday, the Stardust capsule will travel at 29,000 mph, the fastest return to Earth by a man-made object.
The 100-pound cargo will arc over Northern California toward Utah's Dugway Proving Ground, a remote Army base southwest of Salt Lake City.
Residents in parts of Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Utah should see the capsule as it streaks across the pre-dawn sky, likely appearing as a bright pink dot to the naked eye. Prime viewing will be along Nevada's Interstate 80 where residents can view the capsule's front.
The capsule's glow is expected to shine as bright as Venus for 90 seconds. It will appear brightest over Carlin, a small mining city in northeast Nevada.
In certain places, those with telescopes may see the capsule pass in front of the moon, appearing as a tiny dot trailed by a dark wave of hot air and debris from its heat shield.
During the capsule's descent, a team of scientists aboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft will track it and measure its brightness. Part of their mission: Determine how well the capsule's heat shield performed during the plunge. The shield is among several protective material being considered by NASA for its new crew exploration vehicle, which is intended to replace the space shuttle.
After landing, the capsule will be shipped to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where scientists will pry it open and study the microscopic cometary and interstellar samples inside for clues to how the solar system formed.
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