Stardust just can’t seem to stay out of the news. NASA’s comet chaser, named Stardust, returned a sample of celestial material to Earth in 2006 that has produced numerous fascinating findings. Those include the study we covered last week, in which scientists showed that materials that formed near our sun made it out to the far reaches of the solar system to collect on comets. This week, it’s not NASA astronomers making the headlines, but rather citizen scientists who appear to have found the first evidence of interstellar dust in the Stardust samples.
Stardust’s main mission was to gather material from the comet called Wild 2. But on the way, the team deployed a secondary panel of aerogel to try to catch interstellar dust. The researchers hoped to catch 100 or so interstellar grains from the weak but continuous flux in open space. The elements in these grains were forged in stars, but coalesced into grains in the empty space between stars [Nature News]. However, there’s much less dust in interstellar space than there is in a comet tail, and it moves faster, making it harder to catch. When scientists started looking at the sample dropped down to the Utah desert in 2006, it wasn’t clear if Stardust had nabbed any interstellar dust at all.
So NASA called in reinforcements, starting the Stardust@Home project in 2006. Over the last four years, “dusters” scanned millions of tracks in the sample looking for these grains. The first winner was Canadian Bruce Hudson, who named his grain “Orion.” Hudson suffered a stroke in 2003, and he turned to the Stardust@Home project in 2006 as a productive way of passing the time. For a year or so, he spent as much as 15 hours a day scanning thousands of pictures, five seconds per slide [Nature News]. Two probable dust particles have been found thus far.
Orion, say the Stardust researchers who checked it out, is glassy and rich in aluminum. Andrew Westphal of the University of California, Berkeley who announced the find, said the project leaders would use the discovery to try to fine-tune the search for more. “The interstellar dust is fundamentally the stuff we’re made of” [Nature News], he says.
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