NASA's Stardust Sample Return Capsule and Entry Path Visible in Northwest
Stardust Mission Flight and Recovery Team
On January 15, 2006, after more than 7 years and billions of miles of travel through space,
NASA's Stardust spacecraft will release a 100-pound sample return capsule (SRC) to Earth
with some precious cargo -- pristine samples of comet and interstellar dust. Stardust will
provide the world's first opportunity to analyze preserved samples of the fundamental
building blocks of our Solar System that formed 4.6 billion years ago.
During the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, January 15th, the Stardust sample return capsule's
entry will occur at approximately 2:57 am Mountain time. Peak re-entry
heating is expected to occur at an altitude of 61 km, (200,000 ft or 38 statute miles).
The main heating-phase occurs over northern central Nevada, somewhat west & south of the
corresponding Genesis re-entry phase (Figures 1 & 2).
Because the entry occurs in the pre-dawn darkness, the influence of the moon is important
for those viewing reentry. At that date & time the moon will be just past full and will be
high in the sky to the southwest (66 degrees Elevation and -133 degrees Azimuth). For that reason,
it is believed that the best observing location will be south of the ground track (Figure 1), placing the Moon at your back.
There will be many other acceptable viewing sites right along the I-80 corridor in Nevada
beginning from Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, and Dunphy, as well as Carlin. Towns such as
Elko, Nevada are close to the ground track but because Elko faces northward, it may not be
as good of a viewing site. Despite what location you view the SRC entry, keep in mind that
you will only see it for about 30 seconds using a 20 deg horizon visibility mask.
For those setting up instruments, there are some suitable state parks such as South Fork Reservoir,
which is about 16 miles south of Elko, Nevada that would provide public land, and the ability to
set up instruments and camp. This site is located right under the flight path
so the SRC would go straight overhead about 50 miles downrange from the peak heating point
(peak heating is at 43 degree elevation). Whether the park is open seems to depend on snow
conditions so you should check with Nevada Division of State Parks before arriving.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly the "best" viewing location, any site within
the entry ground track and facing south would be more ideal.
One final note, the sonic boom takes quite a while to travel down through 40 miles of the
Earth's atmosphere - so you need to expect it to sound about 3 minutes after the SRC passes
Last Updated: January 6, 2006