DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah – For a split second during Stardust’s white-knuckle descent to Earth, it looked like the space capsule carrying comet dust was in trouble.Mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena could not immediately tell if the capsule had unfurled its first parachute for landing.Scientists held their breath as the ghost of the Genesis spacecraft replayed in their heads. Two years ago, Genesis crashed into the Utah desert, cracking open like a giant clamshell, as it carried solar wind particles.Stardust averted disaster and became the first space probe to return tiny fragments from a comet that scientists believe could be the leftover building blocks of the solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago.Cheers erupted when the capsule opened its second – and main – parachute, guiding it to a pre-dawn landing in the remote desert Sunday.“All stations, we have a touchdown,” mission control radioed.Unknown to engineers, the first parachute also had been released, but it was too small for infrared cameras to see it, said Tom Duxbury, project manager of the $212million mission.Carlton Allen, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, saw it all unfold live on television at Dugway Proving Ground.“It’s an absolute triumph,” Allen said after the landing. “This is a mission that will deeply extend our knowledge of the solar system.”After a seven-year voyage snatching comet and interstellar dust, the Stardust capsule pierced Earth’s atmosphere at a flaming 29,000 mph – the fastest return of any man-made probe – and returned its precious cargo for scientists to study.“This is not the finish line. This is just the intermediate pit stop,” Duxbury said.About a million comet and interstellar dust grains – most smaller than the width of a human hair – are believed to be inside.The dust grains collected in 2004 are believed to be pristine leftovers from materials that formed the sun and planets. Some samples could be even older than the sun.Next stop for the capsule is the Johnson Space Center in Houston where scientists will unlock the canister later this week. After a preliminary examination, they will ship the particles to laboratories all over the world for further study.“Inside this thing is our treasure,” said principal mission scientist Don Brownlee of the University of Washington.Stardust’s successful return was a relief to the space agency, which suffered a setback in 2004 when Genesis slammed into the same salt flats after its parachutes failed to open.After the Genesis mishap, engineers rechecked Stardust’s systems. Duxbury noted that its white-knuckle return home went “like clockwork.”Early Sunday, the Stardust mothership released the shuttlecock-shaped capsule, which glowed as a bright orange fireball over parts of Nevada.Closer to the Dugway Proving Ground landing zone, the capsule shot out of the pre-dawn sky as a white flash of light before parachuting to a landing in soft mud.The capsule bounced three times before coming to rest on its side. Despite the jolt, the capsule didn’t crack, said Joe Vellinga of Lockheed Martin, who helped lead the recovery.After its retrieval, scientists in white protective suits spent the day cleaning the capsule and canister before the trip to Johnson Space Center. It will be days, however, before engineers learn how well the heat shield held up during the fiery re-entry.Meanwhile, the Stardust mothership remains in permanent orbit around the sun, but NASA is considering sending it to another comet or asteroid to snap photos. There won’t be another chance for a sample return because the only capsule was released.Stardust was the third attempted robotic retrieval of extraterrestrial material. The unmanned Soviet Luna 24, which brought back lunar rocks and soil, was the first. It was followed by Genesis.The Stardust spacecraft was launched in 1999 and has traveled nearly 3 billion miles, including three loops around the sun.In 2004, it survived a scary trip through comet Wild 2’s coma, a fuzzy halo of gas and dust, to snatch the cosmic dust with a tennis racket-sized collector mitt. Along the way, it also scooped up interstellar dust – tiny particles thought to be from ancient stars that exploded and died.During the flyby, the spacecraft also beamed back 72 black-and-white pictures showing broad mesas, craters, pinnacles and canyons with flat floors on the surface of Wild 2, a craggy comet that was about 500 million miles from Earth when Stardust was launched.Stardust was the latest mission designed to study comets up close.Six months earlier, NASA sent the Deep Impact probe into the path of an onrushing comet. The high-speed collision with comet Tempel 1 set off a celestial fireworks display in space and revealed the comet’s primordial interior.Scientists have been analyzing the voluminous debris hurled from the comet’s belly and are trying to figure out the size of the crater caused by the impact. 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