Citizen Scientists Find Interstellar Dust Retrieved From Space

By Andrew Moseman | March 5, 2010 6:07 pm

IDustStardust 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.

Related Content:
80beats: Spacecraft-Collected Comet Dust Reveals Surprises from the Solar System’s Boondocks
80beats: Dust Collected From Comet Contains a Key Ingredient For Life
80beats: Meteorite, Maybe Older Than The Sun, Shows Chemistry of Ancient Solar System
DISCOVER: NASA Takes a Wild Comet Ride
DISCOVER: 14 Ways to Use Your Computer’s Spare Time
Bad Astronomy: Stardust@home Starts NOW

Image: NASA

  • dlb

    I think interstellar dust might be the real cause of global warming.

  • dlb

    Honestly, I applaud the efforts of Mr Hudson and wish him continued success and appreciate his efforts. My first post is a weak attempt to illicit personal attacks from my liberal friends who, rather than arguing issues, will throw personal attacks at me. I admit, I find this practice rather amusing and enjoy the juvenile attempts to belittle me rather than my opinion. But in this case, it distracts from the real and impressive efforts by Mr. Hudson, a true patriot and for that I sincerely apologize.

    Good job Mr Hudson and again, I apologize for using this forum to poke fun at my liberal-progressive friends.


  • Chrysoprase

    You must be new to the discover blogs dlb, most of the comments on most of the articles attract trolls, then people feed the trolls, then there is yet another redundant discussion of AGW or evolution or whatever the flavor of the day is. Your post is neither a particularly good troll or original. I’ll give you a D- for effort though.

    On a more constructive note, I remember my college astronomy professor telling us about the formation of stars and planets and saying that scientists weren’t really sure where the larger particles of dust that began the accumulation of matter to form a planet came from or how they were formed. That was several years ago. Is this still true? If so are these samples likely to shed any light on the question?

  • Max E

    I’m not sure Chrysoprase. They might be able to correlate the composition of the dust to the composition of a planet’s crust or a star’s spectroscopic signature, and date it isotopically; but I would say it would take a lot of minds and data before it will shed any light on the source of said dust. Finding samples like this certainly can’t hurt though…


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