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Stardust probe lands in Utah this weekend

Yet the best place to view re-entry may be Nevada

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 11 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

The best nearby location to watch the Stardust space probe burn through the atmosphere prior to its landing at Dugway Proving Ground isn't in Utah — it's in eastern Nevada, says an expert amateur astronomer.

Stardust will blaze back to Earth early next Sunday about 3 a.m., coming in from the West. It will be back after seven years in outer space, having scooped in examples of interstellar dust and bits of Comet Wild-2.

It will come in at 29,000 miles per hour, its heat shield creating a long blaze in the dark heavens. For those in the best places, "Stardust's return home will look like a bright, fiery meteor streaking from northwest to southeast," said Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah and Nevada.

While it should be visible across a large swath of the northwestern United States, its landing state may not be a good place to see it. Wiggins said the best places to see it may be along a line from Elko, Nev., to Wendover. People there may also hear its sonic boom.

"The view along the Wasatch Front is not expected to be good, so some people from that area are planning an unofficial observing session at the Wendover airport," he said. "Other groups are said to be forming near Elko and Wells," both cities in Nevada.

Why can't Salt Lake residents get up early and have a great view from their front yards? First, there's the likelihood of rain, with clouds that can ruin the view for any observer.

According to the National Weather Service, the prediction for Saturday and Sunday is "mostly cloudy." That does not look promising for watching a spacecraft re-enter, at least looking at the forecast a few days in advance.

But even if the weather cooperated, Salt Lake City still would not be the place to watch Stardust's return.

"Assuming good weather, the problem is that it's simply going to be so low from the sky that, say, from the Salt Lake Valley, the Oquirrhs will probably stick up higher than the spacecraft will be."

From a site to the west, it will be higher in the sky.

The forecast for Wendover isn't much better: cloudy Saturday night with a 40 percent chance of rain and snow, mostly cloudy on Sunday.

But if the clouds happen to part at the right moment, the view could be spectacular.

"Take it from someone who has seen some spacecraft re-entries," Wiggins said in a telephone interview. "They're really impressive when they go over your head."

Not only does the re-entry create a fireball, but this can be followed with an eerie purple ion train, a stream of charged gases.

Clouds may not prevent all possible observations. Just possibly, Stardust will let loose a sonic boom when it flies over.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com

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