SJAA Ephemeris January 2006 | SJAA Home | Contents | Previous | Next

Observe the Stardust Re-entry

Mike Koop

On January 15, 2006 at 1:56 PST, after more than 7 years and billions of miles of travel through space, the Stardust spacecraft will finally return to Earth with some precious cargo - pristine samples of comet Wild 2 and interstellar dust. The spacecraft will reenter over the Pacific Northwest and will land in the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) within the Great Salt Lake Desert. The mini Apollo-like capsule will enter the earth's atmosphere with the highest spacecraft re-entry speed ever, generating extremely high temperatures and ablating just like a meteor! To take advantage of this "scheduled meteor", NASA will be flying the DC-8 with meteor scientists (and a SJAA President) to study how the capsule reacts with the Earth's atmosphere. Your President will be operating an Echelle Spectrograph, attempting to collect spectra of shock layer radiation of the re-entry. The DC-8 will be flying in a loop just outside the test range to maximize our viewing time.

The Re-Entry will be visible thru the western states. The capsule is predicted to reach a peak magnitude of -7, but the brightness is dependent on the distance from the capsule and the viewing angle. The capsule is brightest on its leading edge, and will quickly dim as it passes you since the capsule itself will eclipse the heat shield. From here in San Jose, the max altitude will only be 12 degrees above the horizon, and visible only for the beginning of the re-entry, before it reaches peak brightness. You will need to get high in the Diablo range with a clear Northern horizon to have any chance to view it during these winter months. To have a better view, you need to go further to the northeast. The best opportunities for viewing the re-entry will be along Highway 80 between Carlin, Nev., and Elko, Nev., and further east to the Utah border, where the capsule's front side can be observed before it passes over the observer on the ground. It is also possible to position yourself so that the capsule will pass in front of the moon! Amateur astronomers are encouraged to submit photographic, video or other data. Check for more information and the SJAA website for star field plots.


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