Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Stardust @ home

This is the most nerdy kind of cool. I love stuff like this.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

Computer users are being invited to join the hunt for minute grains of stardust a NASA spacecraft should return to Earth this weekend.

The Stardust spacecraft should land in Utah early Saturday, carrying in its hold a sprinkling of grains of interstellar dust scooped up during its seven year mission. Researchers are seeking the public's help in pinpointing the submicroscopic bits of dust, leftovers from stellar explosions perhaps millions of years old, in photos they plan to place on the Internet.

In 2004, Stardust passed through the tail of comet Wild2, picking up samples of the cometary dust that makes the comet's tail visible. Researches now have to analyze the interstellar dust collectors for evidence of submicroscopic particles using a high-powered microscope. From the Stardust @ Home Web site:

Finding the incredibly tiny interstellar dust impacts in the Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector (SIDC) will be extremely difficult. Because dust detectors on the Ulysses and Galileo spacecraft have detected interstellar dust streaming into the solar system, we know there should be about 45 interstellar dust impacts in the SIDC. These impacts can only be found using a high-magnification microscope with a field of view smaller than a grain of salt. But the aerogel collector that we have to search enormous by comparison, about a tenth of a square meter (about a square foot) in size. The job is roughly equivalent to searching for 45 ants in an entire football field, one 5cm by 5cm (2 inch by 2 inch) square at a time! More than 1.6 million individual fields of view will have to searched to find the interstellar dust grains. We estimate that it would take more than twenty years of continuous scanning for us to search the entire collector by ourselves.

So they are seeking volunteers to download a virtual microscope and copies of the images to share the workload. Not just anybody can play. You have to pass a test (I can see what I'll be doing this weekend) and complete some Web-based training to qualify before registering for the project. The payoff? Anybody who finds one of the anticipated 45 or so interstellar dust particles will be named as a co-author of the scientific paper announcing the discovery of the particle. Way wicked cool. I mean, I'll do anything to get my name published.

Quite a few years ago, I took a course in astronomy. One of the things we talked about was interstellar dust. It is one of the most primal building blocks in nature - the Sun, the Earth and even we are made of interstellar dust. (Okay, semantic quibble, but I guess the Sun is not made up of interstellar dust, but stellar dust. But, you get my point.) Whenever you see a meteor, a 'shooting star', you are likely seeing a minute particle of interstellar debris burning up in the atmosphere. Except it doesn't burn up completely, it just becomes microscopic dust that settles down and comes to rest all over the Earth, including on your coffee table.

Which is a really great excuse not to be too quick with that can of Pledge. Because you wouldn't want to disturb something so fundamentally beautiful as interstellar dust, would you?