Shop Windows to the Universe

Become a nitrogen atom in the nitrogen cycle in our Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit/Game. See all our games, activity kits and classroom activities.
This picture shows what an artist thinks Stardust might look like flying by Comet Wild 2 in January 2004.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy NASA/JPL.

The Stardust mission to a comet

Stardust is the name of a space mission that studied a comet. NASA's Stardust spacecraft flew past a comet named Wild 2 in January 2004. During its flyby Stardust collected some dust particles from the comet. The spacecraft brought those dust particles back to Earth so scientists can study them.

Scientists are learning what a comet is made of by studying the dust that Stardust collected. Some comets haven't changed very much since they formed in the early days of our Solar System. Knowing what comets are made of may help us understand what our Solar System was like soon after it was "born".

The Stardust spacecraft used a strange material called aerogel to capture dust particles from the comet. The dust was moving very fast - about 21,960 kilometers (13,650 miles) per hour - as it zoomed by Stardust. Aerogel is so light and fluffy that it was able to stop and capture dust grains without destroying them. A capsule from the spacecraft carrying the dust grains landed back on Earth in January 2006. Stardust also shot the best pictures ever of the nucleus of a comet during its flyby.

Right now scientists are studying the dust that Stardust brought back. They have already had a surprise. Comets are large balls of ice. But the samples Stardust brought back included some minerals that form at high temperatures! These minerals normally form near the Sun (or some other star). Scientists don't know how the minerals got out to the frozen edge of the Solar System where comets are.

Last modified March 21, 2006 by Randy Russell.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, ranging from seismology, rocks and minerals, oceanography, and Earth system science to astronomy!

Windows to the Universe Community



You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Comet Wild 2

Comet Wild 2 is named after the scientist who discovered it. Paul Wild is an astronomer from Switzerland who discovered the comet in January 1978. Wild 2 is pronounced "Vilt 2". The comet orbits the Sun...more

The Comet Coma

As the ices of the comet nucleus evaporate, they expand rapidly into a large cloud around the central part of the comet. This cloud, called the coma, is the atmosphere of the comet and can extend for millions...more

Solar System Formation

Scientists believe that the solar system was formed when a cloud of gas and dust in space was disturbed, maybe by the explosion of a nearby star (called a supernova). This explosion made waves in space...more

Nucleus of Comet Wild 2

The picture on this page shows the best views ever of the nucleus of a comet. It shows two pictures of the comet's nucleus that were taken at slightly different times. The pictures were taken by a spacecraft...more


Olivine looks like little green crystals. It is typically found in some igneous and metamorphic rocks. Often the crystals are so small that you need to use your hand lens or magnifying glass to see them...more

Stardust Finds Amino Acid in Comet Samples

Scientists have found a type of amino acid in a sample returned from a comet. Amino acids are the building-blocks of proteins. Proteins are one of the most important types of molecules in living creatures....more

The Stardust mission to a comet

Stardust is the name of a space mission that studied a comet. NASA's Stardust spacecraft flew past a comet named Wild 2 in January 2004. During its flyby Stardust collected some dust particles from the...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA