11 January 2006
NASA is looking for volunteers to spend about 30,000 hours looking at minuscule particles on a web-based microscope to identify traces of interstellar dust collected by the 'Stardust' spacecraft, expected to return to Earth on Sunday, 15 January.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said today it would enlist an army of internet volunteers to help in the meticulous search for rare grains of 'submicroscopic dust' that was collected along with larger grains of dust from the comet Wild 2 during the probe's seven-year, 4.5 billion kilometre journey.
The reward for discoverers will be the privilege of naming the dust grains they find. The programme was announced at the national meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.
'Twenty or 30 years ago, we would have hired a small army of microscopists who would be hunched over microscopes focusing up and down ... looking for the tracks of these dust grains,' said Andrew Westphal, a University of California at Berkeley scientist who developed the technique to digitally scan the aerogel in which the dust is embedded.
If all goes well in the precarious landing on Sunday in the western Utah desert, scientists plan to make the images available through a web-based virtual microscope starting in mid-March.
Mission experts are holding their breath for a safe landing after last year's ill-fated return of the Genesis space probe carrying solar wind particles, which crashed after its parachute failed to open.
Volunteer scanners must pass a test to find the particle tracks in a few test samples, the scientists said. The particles 'will have made carrot-shaped trails' in the aerogel - the gummy substance that captured and immobilized the small grains.
'Searching each picture should take just a few seconds, but the close attention required as the viewer repeatedly focuses up and down through image after image will probably limit the number a person can scan in one sitting,' a statement said.
The interstellar grains were collected from the 'interstellar dust stream' that travels about 20 kilometres per second through the solar system.
Eventually, the identified grains will be extracted for analysis.
NASA took a 'risk' with the programme, because it allowed Stardust to launch 'without anyone having a clue as to how to get particles out of the aerogel after it came back,' Westphal said.
During the seven-year space journey, Westphal and others back on Earth developed microtweezers and what he calls 'micro-pickle forks' to pull out the grains.
Stardust is the first mission to return dust samples from a comet and from the galaxy.