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WENDOVER - About 30 Utahns, wrapped in blankets and drinking coffee, huddled together at the Wendover Airport early Sunday morning for what many called a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience - seeing NASA's Stardust capsule hurtle back to Earth.

"We go to a lot of stuff out at Stansbury Park's observatory, but something like this may never happen again," said Erik Quist, who recorded the 30-second streak across the sky and the subsequent sonic boom.

"They couldn't have scripted that better," said his father, Dave Quist, referring to the break in clouds that made viewers at Wendover Airport one of the few able to see the return.

About 10 minutes after the comet dust-filled capsule the size of a garbage-can lid passed, the sky clouded over completely.

Patrick Wiggins, NASA's "solar system ambassador" to Utah, was pleased with the "artistic" entry as the capsule shot out from a bank of horizon-level clouds, then disappeared from sight as it moved into another cloud bank.

"We have witnessed history," said Wiggins, who used high-powered binoculars to see the pencil-thin line of "purplish-pink" swirls following the capsule.

"Pieces of a pristine part of the beginning of the solar system are here on Earth for the first time. It was a comet carrying a comet that came bursting through the sky."

Even some of the Stardust scientists could not help being excited about the light show.

Just before NASA TV began broadcasting early images of the probe falling through the atmosphere, some researchers watching from Dugway Proving Ground sneaked outside to scan the sky.

Don Brownlee, the Stardust mission's lead investigator from the University of Washington in Seattle, said the probe grew brighter and brighter as it appeared to climb the west desert skies before disappearing from view.

"People were literally just screaming," he said of other participants watching the light show from Dugway.

A few hours later at a news briefing, the researcher who has spent the better part of a decade waiting for Stardust to deliver comet debris called the sighting the most exciting part of the mission.

"It's ironic that you have a comet mission end with producing a comet," Brownlee said. "It was just an absolute thrill to see this."

A colleague sky gazing in central Nevada was not as lucky. That observer could only stare at a blanket of clouds at the appointed moment, Brownlee said.

But the chilled space enthusiasts gathered in Wendover may have seen one of the better shows thanks to the clouds parting at the right moment.

Mike Arbon, 22, drove up from Sandy to witness the event. He said the display was well worth the wait in freezing temperatures. He said the experience was more fruitful than watching for comets.

"Comet-watching is like trying to photograph a lightning bolt, but we knew exactly where to look tonight," Arbon said. "I hope to see something like this one more time before I die."