September 27, 2004


The Genesis Project (CHARLES SIEBERT, 9/26/04, NY Times)

One morning, a little more than a year from now, a group of scientists, members of what is known as the Stardust mission, will be standing around on a remote stretch of salt flat in the Utah desert, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a very special package. It will, if all goes as planned, enter our atmosphere much like a meteorite, plunging earthward until the final stage of re-entry, when a small parachute will open. The object, about the size and overall appearance of a large metal cephalopod mollusk, better known as the nautilus, will drift harmlessly to the ground, its belly filled with the dust and debris gathered from the comet Wild 2, which scientists now expect may offer significant clues about life's origins here on earth.

''These comets are thought to contain some of the most primitive material in the solar system, more or less unchanged since its formation,'' Scott A. Sandford, a NASA research astrophysicist and co-investigator of the Stardust mission, told me one afternoon this past spring. We sat talking in the dining area of a huge white plastic tent pitched in the middle of the NASA Ames Research Center campus in Moffett Field, Calif., a tree-dotted, 440-acre sprawl of tan brick laboratory buildings.

''Among the things we'll want to know about the material we've collected,'' continued Sandford, a stout, rugged-looking man with a way of talking about even the most far-flung, wondrous endeavors as though he were a plumber discussing your bathroom pipes, ''is what fraction of it is organic, what kinds of organics they are and what possible role they may have played in life's emergence on earth.''

Searching for the origins of life in the dust of a comet might sound like a bit of cosmically cockeyed indirection, something straight out of a New Age sci-fi novel. The Stardust mission, however, is typical of a number of projects to divine life's origins, all part of a $75-million-a-year scientific enterprise now being financed by NASA. It is known as astrobiology.

Do they study ESP too?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2004 8:06 AM

Mr. Judd;

Perhaps they also study organic molecules in interstellar dust clouds.

But didn't that mission just crash? Is this a time warp or something? The date is '04, though.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 27, 2004 12:14 PM

The one that crashed recently was the sample from the Genesis mission. That one was trying to collect particles of the solar wind. Stardust is bringing back comet dust.

Posted by: rps at September 27, 2004 2:34 PM

Will Michael Crichton be there for the landing?

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 27, 2004 9:47 PM

Only the profoundly ignorant ridicule the pursuit of knowledge.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 28, 2004 12:43 AM

Uri Geller says, amen.

Posted by: oj at September 28, 2004 7:26 AM

It isn't a question that interests me very much, but it is a question.

They have an hypothesis and, with luck, will have some information to test it against.

Only a determined Flat Earther would confuse that with what Geller does

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 30, 2004 4:51 PM

Yet the spoon bends.

Posted by: oj at September 30, 2004 6:23 PM