AAS 201st Meeting, January, 2003
Session 38. Solar Systems: Ours and Theirs
Invited, Monday, January 6, 2003, 3:40-5:10pm, 6AB

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[38.01] Catching Stardust and Bringing it Home: The Astronomical Importance of Sample Return

D. Brownlee (U. Washington)

The return of lunar samples by the Apollo program provided the first opportunity to perform detailed laboratory studies of ancient solid materials from a known astronomical body. The highly detailed study of the samples, using the best available laboratory instruments and techniques, revolutionized our understanding of the Moon and provided fundamental insight into the remarkable and violent processes that occur early in the history of moons and terrestrial planets. This type of astronomical paleontology is only possible with samples and yet the last US sample return was made by Apollo 17- over thirty years ago!

The NASA Stardust mission, began a new era of sample missions with its 1999 launch to retrieve samples from the short period comet Wild 2. Genesis (a solar wind collector) was launched in 2001, the Japanese MUSES-C asteroid sample return mission will launch in 2003 and Mars sample return missions are under study. All of these missions will use sophisticated ground-based instrumentation to provide types of information that cannot be obtained by astronomical and spacecraft remote sensing methods. In the case of Stardust, the goal is to determine the fundamental nature of the initial solid building blocks of solar systems at atomic-scale spatial resolution. The samples returned by the mission will be samples from the Kuiper Belt region and they are probably composed of submicron silicate and organic materials of both presolar and nebular origin. Unlocking the detailed records contained in the elemental, chemical, isotopic and mineralogical composition of these tiny components can only be appropriately explored with full power, precision and flexibility of laboratory instrumentation. Laboratory instrumentation has the advantage that is state-of-the-art and is not limited by serious considerations of power, mass, cost or even reliability.

The comparison of the comet sample, accumulated beyond Neptune, with asteroidal meteorites that accumulated just beyond the orbit of Mars will provide important insight into the materials, environments and processes that occurred from the central regions to outer fringes of the solar nebula. One of the most exciting aspects of the January 2006 return of comet samples will be the synergistic linking of data on real comet and interstellar dust samples with the vast amount of astronomical data on these materials and analogous particles that orbit other stars

Stardust is a NASA Discovery mission that has successfully traveled over 2.5 billion kilometers.

The author(s) of this abstract have provided an email address for comments about the abstract: brownlee@astro.washington.edu

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