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Scientists seek stellar surprises on satellite skin

CAPE CANAVERAL - Scientists said Tuesday they are giving the white-glove treatment to a satellite that orbited Earth for six years, hoping the stardust it collected will tell them how the solar system was formed. The Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) satellite, brought down from orbit Jan. 20 in a space shuttle, is covered with about 10,000 holes made by tiny particles of cosmic dust that hit it during its journey, according to researchers who have been studying the satellite in a sterilized building at the Kennedy Space Center since last week.

"We're looking for stardust. That sounds romantic, but it's true," said Dr. Robert Walker, a researcher with Washington University in St. Louis.

"We expect that comets are the repository of the most primitive, or even primordial, material that we can find in the solar system," he said.

The researchers said they were making a preliminary inspection of the satellite, which holds 57 experiments designed to see how long-term space exposure affects terrestrial material, such as metal alloys and seeds.

Walker leads an international team of scientists who have been looking at LDEF through binoculars for more than a week. It will be at least another week before they can get close enough to view their experiment under an electron microscope.