As the cold wind howls outside our house and snaps some of our bamboo, I wake up hours before dawn, come downstairs to sit in my dining room, flip on the gas fireplace, power up iTunes radio for some music, and watch the re-entry of the Stardust mission recovery capsule to its Utah landing site on NASA TV on my computer. The capsule contains comet dust collected a couple of years ago in deep space during a fly-by of the Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt 2") comet.
A lot of technology is supporting my ability to do this.
I just heard applause as the deployment of the main chute was reported; I have a window open in the upper left hand of my laptop screen where I can see the infrared image of the capsule as it floats down to land.
Now the capsule has landed and a helicopter has been deployed to the GPS coordinates of the lander. They are looking for a 100 pound capsule on the ground in the desert. I can see the infrared image of the helicopter on the screen as it searches in the dark for the capsule. The helicopter is a bright dot on the screen.
I'm watching this on a 6 year old laptop running Windows 2000 that is communicating with a wireless connection through a router that connects to a DSL signal fed by Verizon. The image is a bit choppy but I'm not complaining.
I've got the sound muted as I wait for an image that confirms the location of the capsule. I am still amazed that all this stuff works. I know kids who've grown up with this take this stuff for granted, and I remember just last night at a friend's house saying how much I've grown to rely on the Internet for recipes in lieu of the cookbook collection we've built up over the years. I still get excited when the technology gives me a front row seat on things that are happening around the world -- or in remote parts of the solar system,for that matter.
The helicopter has landed and the crew report that they have sighted the landing chute. Then they report that the capsule has been located as well. On screen there are a lot of happy people at JPL and the commentators themselves are smiling. It's not every day that a sample of comet dust is returned to earth!