Associated Press
A mosaic image taken by the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows a 360 degree panoramic view of the rover on Mars and sent back to Earth on Saturday.

The successful comet fly-by performed Friday by the Stardust probe, and the fact it and another probe will land samples in Utah, may pave the way for Utah to become a "spaceport for interplanetary samples."

That's the assessment of Seth Jarvis, director of Clark Planetarium, commenting on a dizzying weekend of space successes. He was joined with other Utahns jubilant about two spectacular space feats.

Altogether, four spacecraft are either targeting Utah or have important components built here:

• Spirit, the Mars lander that bounced onto the surface of Gusav Crater on the red planet Saturday night. Hundreds of Utahns working for ATK Aerospace, headquartered in Salt Lake City, built parts of the project.

The nine solid rocket boosters that helped lift Spirit's Delta II rocket into space were constructed at ATK's Thiokol Propulsion operations at Magna and ATK Composites in Clearfield, while the mast for the rover's camera was built at ATK's Magna Space Structures Facility, Jeff Foote, president of ATK Aerospace, told the Deseret News earlier.

• Opportunity, a Mars lander which is to land at Meridian Planum on the other side of Mars in about three weeks. It is an identical vehicle to Spirit and has the same Utah connections.

• Stardust comet probe, which flew past Comet Wild-2 (pronounced Vilt-2) Friday night to collect primordial material from the earliest days of the solar system, will land in January 2006 at the Utah Test and Training Range in the state's western desert.

• Genesis, which has collected samples of the solar wind about 1 million miles closer to the sun than Earth's orbit, is to parachute through the atmosphere above the UTTR on Sept. 8. NASA engineers hope to snag the capsule in midair via helicopter.

Genesis and Stardust make "Utah sort of Earth's spaceport for interplanetary samples," said Jarvis. "We're looking for Utah to become the preferred landing site for science missions to the solar system.

"It's a huge solar system, and yet all of this stuff lands in our own back yard. What could be more exciting than that?"

Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, was thrilled by the amazing space shots of the past weekend.

"Talk about a good weekend for NASA," he said in a telephone interview. "Friday, a flawless encounter with Comet Wild-2, particles of which were captured in the spacecraft," he said.

As if that weren't amazing enough, on Saturday night, Spirit landed on Mars. "I cannot imagine a way it could have gone any better," Wiggins said. "It's almost like it was out of a movie."

Spirit was launched last June. Entering Mars' atmosphere, it was slowed by parachute and retro-rockets. It was protected in the midst of big beach-ball type padding, which allowed it to bounce several times on the surface before rolling to a stop.

Within three hours, it had radioed small engineering photos to Earth, showing the surroundings and the rover's condition. Within about nine days, the rover should be unfolded from its platform and begin roaming around the landscape, sampling the geology and sending back detailed photos.

"Things happened when they were supposed to happen, as they were supposed to happen," Wiggins said. "NASA is thrilled. I'm thrilled. I'm just a volunteer and I'm thrilled."

Wiggins was surprised that Spirit returned photos as soon as it did. A contact at NASA had told him not to be disappointed if it took a day to establish radio contact with the lander, and another day to get any pictures back.

But the only gap in transmissions was for a short period after Spirt began bouncing across the terrain. Once the spacecraft stopped rolling, receivers locked onto the signal again.

Even though the first views from Spirit were only small, black-and-white engineering photos, Wiggins was impressed.

They show the spacecraft, but "we're also seeing rocks and dirt and little craters and mountains off in the distance," he said.

"I want the rover to go explore that mountain range."

It should be able to roam around on the surface for about three months, and maybe longer. Unlike previous vehicles, it is a large machine that does not need to stay close to the landing platform.

With Stardust, Wiggins said, the spacecraft escaped unscathed from its close encounter with the stream of particles from the comet. "There were pieces of the comet hitting it about six times the speed of a rifle bullet," he said.

But shielding protected the probe, and it collected cometary material. Stardust may have flown right through material shooting out of a vent on the comet.

"To me, it (Wild-2) really looks like a dirty snowball," said Chuck Hards, a noted amateur telescope-maker from West Valley City. He studied a photo that Stardust had sent back of the comet's nucleus.

Theorists have said for a decade that comets were dirty snowballs, and this view seems to prove it.

"Pretty heady times for anybody interested in science," Hards added.

Jarvis obviously agreed. He described the dual successes of the past few days as "the biggest thing to come along in a long, long time."