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<i>Stardust</i> Probe Crosses Path of Comet Wild 2, Snaps Photos - 2004-01-03

A U.S. spacecraft flew through a comet's dusty halo Saturday and for the first time collected samples of stardust for return for study on Earth.

Cheers broke out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California when ground controllers received data that the spacecraft survived a nightmarish dust storm around comet Wild 2 nearly 400 million kilometers from Earth and signaled that it captured some of that dust.

"We survived once again another critical operation," said Orlando Figueroa, the director of solar system exploration at the U.S. space agency, NASA. "This new step brings us closer to bringing samples of the primitive materials from which the solar system was formed."

NASA dispatched the spacecraft, known as Stardust, five years ago because scientists wanted to retrieve grains of matter from the time when the solar system coalesced four-and-a-half billion years ago out of the material between stars. Comets are thought to be repositories of this primordial dust, much of which surrounds them in a bright cloud. Many scientists believe that comets transferred the organic compounds necessary for life found in this dust to the fledging Earth during a continuous series of collisions.

Mission scientist Thomas Duxbury said a spacecraft tray filled with a wispy filter known as aerogel captured several grams of Wild 2's comet dust that might offer clues about this hypothesis.

"This collected thousands and thousands of particles that will be analyzed here in laboratories on Earth and really will give us a hint of the major role that comets have played in the history of Earth and of life on Earth, including ourselves," he said.

The scientific reward comes in a little more than two years when Stardust returns to Earth and drops a canister of the particles by parachute onto the desert in Utah for study in laboratories around the world.

While researchers await that payload, they have already begun seeing images transmitted from the spacecraft during its flyby. It came as close as 250 kilometers of the comet's nucleus and is already relaying some of the most detailed pictures ever taken of one.