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Stardust, NASA's comet-chasing space probe, is expected to make a showy return to Earth to complete its six-year, 2.88-billion mile journey. The craft was launched in 1999 and collected particles from the tail of comet Wild 2 in January 2004, when it approached within 147 miles of its body. When Stardust's comet dust-filled capsule returns to Earth, at about 3 a.m. MST Jan. 15, 2006, it will be visible as a point of light to the naked eye as it streaks across Nevada and Utah to its deserted landing site at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range.
Stardust took this photo as it approched within 147 miles of the comet Wild 2 (pronounced "vilt two") on Jan. 2, 2004. The comet is named after its discoverer, Paul Wild.
When it passed through the tail of Wild 2, Stardust's collector, filled with aerogel, acted like a catcher's mitt as it grabbed samples. At the time of Stardust's launch, on Feb. 7, 1999, NASA claimed that aerogel was the lightest man-made material on Earth.