Two signs we're living in the 21st century: SpaceX and Stardust
Two brief but significant news items today made me stop and think about how far we've come in space travel.
First of all, there was a NASA press release about the Federal Aviation Administration granting a license. Just a bureaucratic thing, on the face of it. But this bureaucratic matter is the "first-ever commercial license to reenter a spacecraft from Earth orbit," granted to SpaceX in advance of its plans to test the launch, and return, of the Dragon capsule, currently planned for December 7. I'll be staying tuned to SpaceFlight Now's Falcon 9 mission status center for progress on that. (I looked on SpaceX' website for their own release about this, but I didn't see one.)
Second, there was a JPL press release announcing the success of a nine-second engine burn on Stardust, which is on course to rendezvous with comet Tempel 1 on February 14, 2011. This is a spacecraft whose prime mission is long over; it gathered some of a comet's tail and successfully returned it to Earth nearly five years ago now. But Stardust, like so many of our robotic spacecraft, is so robust that it can be sent onward to a second mission, many years after its primary one is over; we're actually going back to a comet where we have unfinished business, the first return trip to one of the solar system's small bodies.
NASA / JPL / UMD
Stardust was the first spacecraft to return a cometary sample and extraterrestrial material to Earth from outside the orbit of the Moon. In 2004, Stardust made a close flyby of comet 81P/Wild (Wild 2), collecting comet and interstellar dust in a substance called aerogel.