On January 15, 2006, the sample return capsule from NASA's Stardust spacecraft parachuted onto the Utah desert. In addition to the particles collected during Stardust's encounter with comet Wild 2 in January of 2004 the spacecraft delivered tiny particles of interstellar dust that originated in distant stars, light-years away. Scientists estimate that Stardust collected 45 of these micron-sized interstellar dust particles using an aerogel collector 1,000 square centimeters in size.

Finding the individual dust particles, however, has been a challenge—made worse by the condition of the collector plates, which are interspersed with flaws, cracks and an uneven surface.

Through its Stardust@home citizen science project, University of California, Berkeley, researchers have invited Internet users to help them search for these few dozen submicroscopic grains of interstellar dust captured by NASA's Stardust spacecraft. The researchers took scans of the plates from a cleanroom at Houston's Johnson Space Center and made images of these scans available for public viewing via the Web. The dust grains will have made carrot-shaped trails in the aerogel, which is a silicon-based sponge 100 times lighter than water.

Project Details

  • PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST: Bryan Mendez, Space Science Education and Public Outreach Specialist
  • SCIENTIST AFFILIATION: Center for Science Education at the University of California, Berkeley, Space Sciences Laboratory
  • DATES: Ongoing
  • PROJECT TYPE: Observation
  • COST: Free
  • GRADE LEVEL: All Ages

    Citizen scientists begin by reading a little about the Stardust mission, then take a tutorial that enables them to practice identifying particles. Each citizen scientist must then pass a Web-based test to qualify to register and participate. After passing the test and registering, the participant can login to the virtual microscope program, which automatically connects to Berkeley's server and downloads images for perusal.

    If at least two of the four volunteers viewing each image report a potential particle, that image is fed to 100 more volunteers for verification. If at least 20 of these report a potential particle, 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.

    For additional information, contact Bryan Mendez:

See more projects in FreeObservationAll Ages.

What Is Citizen Science?

Research often involves teams of scientists collaborating across continents. Now, using the power of the Internet, non-specialists are participating, too. Citizen Science falls into many categories. A pioneering project was SETI@Home, which has harnessed the idle computing time of millions of participants in the search for extraterrestrial life. Citizen scientists also act as volunteer classifiers of heavenly objects, such as in Galaxy Zoo. They make observations of the natural world, as in The Great Sunflower Project. And they even solve puzzles to design proteins, such as FoldIt. We'll add projects regularly—and please tell us about others you like as well.

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