NASA's Stardust spacecraft made a close fly-by of the comet Wild 2 on 2 January, transmitting clear images of the crater-pitted nucleus, looking like an asteroid, from a closest distance of 240km (150 miles). The images revealed five gas columns apparently emanating from deep pits inside the nucleus.

Stardust collected comet dust using an aerogel grid that will be inserted in a re-entry capsule on the spacecraft and returned to Earth in January 2006, 30 years after the last return of space samples.

Soviet Luna craft have previously collected lunar samples. The final 1976 mission was the last time a spacecraft returned to Earth with extraterrestrial material. Re-entry of the Stardust capsule will mark the first return of cometary and interstellar material using a spacecraft.

Source: Flight International