Physicist awaits his piece of Stardust

Robert Pepin PhotoThe long wait is almost over for physics professor Robert Pepin, who will receive a precious sample of comet dust collected by NASA's Stardust mission during its seven years in space. On Jan. 15, shortly after 4 a.m. CST, the payload of the Stardust mission, launched in 1999, parachuted to the Utah desert, carrying samples of the first comet dust ever captured in space.

Scientists believe these samples will yield important insights into the evolution of the sun, its planets, and possibly even the origin of life itself. Pepin, whose projects with NASA go back to the Apollo moon missions, will analyze his allotment for its helium and neon content. He expects it will be at least several weeks before he receives his share.

During its round-trip journey the Stardust spacecraft made three loops around the sun and traveled 2.88 billion miles. In 2004, Stardust's trajectory intersected with Comet Wild-2, sending the spacecraft on a bumpy ride through a hail of cometary particles.