LOS ANGELES (AP) -- NASA
has deactivated most of the Stardust spacecraft that collected the first comet
dust ever gathered in space, two weeks after the probe jettisoned samples to
Earth from its seven-year voyage through the heavens.
A 100-pound capsule from
the spacecraft parachuted to the Utah
desert Jan. 15 carrying microscopic debris from comet Wild 2 and interstellar
dust. But the capsule's mothership remained in orbit around the sun.
On Sunday, engineers
powered down all of Stardust's systems except for its solar panels and receiver
antenna. The move was necessary to maintain the spacecraft and save fuel for
possible future missions.
“Stardust has performed
flawlessly these last seven years ... and deserves a rest for a while,''
project manager Tom Duxbury said in a statement.
The mothership, which has
traveled nearly 3 billion miles, is in permanent orbit around the sun. The next
time it flies by Earth will be on Jan. 14, 2009.
The Stardust capsule
trapped thousands of cosmic debris samples, most of the particles tinier than
the width of a human hair, but a surprising number of others were visible to
the naked eye, researchers said.
Scientists have spent the
past two weeks analyzing the cosmic grains under a microscope. The next step is
to ship samples to 150 scientists worldwide for further investigation.
The comet and interstellar
dust particles are believed to have originated at the fringes of the solar
system about 4.5 billion years ago. Some may be older than the sun and could
shed light on the origins of the solar system.