NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, which flew through the tail of a comet, is set to crash land in Utah this weekend. On board will be many fine grains from the comet’s tail, as well as a smattering of interstellar dust grains from nearby recent supernovae. Finding these grains will be tricky, requiring tens of thousands of hours of searching through photos of aerogel. In the old days, this would make for someone’s dissertation, but with the internet, a new option is available:
In a new project called Stardust@home, University of California, Berkeley, researchers will invite Internet users to help them search for a few dozen submicroscopic grains of interstellar dust captured by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft and due to return to Earth [this weekend].
…”Twenty or 30 years ago, we would have hired a small army of microscopists who would be hunched over microscopes focusing up and down through the aerogel looking for the tracks of these dust grains,” said Westphal. “Instead, we developed an automated microscope to scan the aerogel and hope to use volunteers we have trained and tested to search for these tracks.”
…If at least two of the four volunteers viewing each image report a track, that image will be fed to 100 more volunteers for verification. If at least 20 of these report a track, UC Berkeley undergraduates who are expert at spotting dust grain tracks will confirm the identification. Eventually, the grain will be extracted for analysis. Discoverers will get to name their dust grains.
What a wonderful way to get people involved with space exploration (though I would have preferred something more Tito-esque by 2006). I think I will name my dust grain … “Joni Mitchell.”
More from NASA, including where and when to look for re-entry…