UK scientists all set for New Year encounter with a comet (Forwarded)
Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council
PPARC Press Office
Tel: 01793 442012, Email:
Mobile: 0781 8013509
Louis de la Foret
OU Media Relations Office
Tel: 01908 653256, Email:
Mobile: 0777 1810099
Professor Tony McDonnell
Open University STARDUST team/NASA Co-Investigator
Tel: +44 (0) 1227 761352, Email:
Mobile: +44 (0) 7771 514007
Dr Simon Green
Open University STARDUST team (at JPL from 27th Dec)
Tel: +44 (0) 1908 659601, Email:
Dr Neil McBride
Open University STARDUST team (at JPL from 27th Dec)
Tel: +44 (0) 1908 659600, Email:
16 December 2003
UK scientists all set for New Year encounter with a comet
On January 2nd 2004 the NASA space mission, STARDUST, will fly through comet
Wild 2, capturing interstellar particles and dust and returning them to Earth in
2006. Space scientists from the Open University and University of Kent have
developed one of the instruments which will help tell us more about comets and
the evolution of our own solar system and, critical for STARDUST, its survival
in the close fly-by of the comet.
Launched in February 1999, STARDUST is the first mission designed to bring
samples back from a known comet. The study of comets provides a window into the
past as they are the best preserved raw materials in the Solar System. The
cometary and interstellar dust samples collected will help provide answers to
fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system.
Scientists from the Open University and University of Kent have developed one
set of sensors for the Dust Flux Monitor Instrument (DFMI) built by the
University of Chicago, and the software to analyse the data. The DFMI, part
funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) will
record the distribution and sizes of particles on its journey through the
centre, or coma, of the comet.
Professor Tony McDonnell and Dr Simon Green from the Open Universitys Planetary
and Space Science Research Institute (PSSRI), will be at the mission command
centre, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, when the encounter with
Wild 2 begins.
Dr Green explains, "By combining the information about each of the tiny grains
of dust captured by STARDUST we will discover more about the formation of stars,
planets and our solar system."
Professor Tony McDonnell said, "The information derived from the signals will
tell us on the night if the dust shield has been critically punctured."
Cometary particles will be captured on a tennis racket like grid which contains
a substance called aerogel the lightest solid in the Universe! This is a porous
material that allows the particles to become embedded with minimum damage. This
means that on their return to Earth they will be as near as possible to their
Once the samples are captured a clam-like shell closes around them. The capsule
then returns to Earth in January 2006 where it will land at the US Air Force
Utah Test and Training Range. Once collected, the samples will be taken to the
planetary material curatorial facility at NASAs Johnson Space Centre, Houston,
where they will be carefully stored and examined.
The Open University team hope to be involved in analysing the samples that
return to Earth in January 2006.
UK scientists, including a team from the Open University, are also involved with
the European Space Agencys Rosetta Mission which will follow and land on Comet
Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This mission is due to be launched on 26th February 2004.
Notes to Editors:
The distance between Earth and Comet Wild 2 will be 390 million kilometres (242
million miles) at the time of the encounter.
Wild-2 is pronounced Vilt-2. The comet is named after the Swiss discoverer.
STARDUST, is part of NASAs Discovery Programme of low cost, highly focused
science missions, was built by Lockheed Martin Astronautics and Operations,
Denver, Colorado, and is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASAs
Office of Space Science, Washington D.C.
Images of STARDUST flying through Comet Wild 2 and the unusual aerogel material
that will capture the interstellar dust can be found on the PPARC website at
Alternatively, contact Gill Ormrod in the PPARC press office (details above).
* Open University
The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UKs strategic
science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding
in four broad areas of science -- particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and
PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to
scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class
facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the
European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, the European Space Agency and
the European Southern Observatory. It also contributes money for the UK
telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK
Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the
MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.
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