As the return of the Stardust cometary samples approaches, it’s encouraging to learn of a Stardust-related project with interstellar implications. Stardust@Home is an Internet-based search for interstellar dust in the Stardust materials, one that relies, like SETI@Home before it, on the combined computing resources of those who volunteer to assist. Unlike the latter project, however, Stardust@Home requires a Web-based training session and subsequent test, after which those who pass will be able to download a virtual microscope and images from the Stardust collector. It will take personal scrutiny rather than just computing cycles to try to locate interstellar materials.
Although most attention has focused on Stardust’s cometary samples, its aerogel collector was also designed to catch the first interstellar dust ever collected. The number of dust grains found may number in the low dozens, but even one would be a breakthrough, marking the first time such materials were studied in a laboratory. And the dust should be there: both the Ulysses and Galileo spacecraft have detected interstellar dust moving through the Solar System. Finding the anticipated 45 dust grains will be, as the Stardust@Home site says, “…roughly equivalent to searching for 45 ants in an entire football field, one 5cm by 5cm (2 inch by 2 inch) square at a time! More than 1.6 million individual fields of view will have to searched…”
Distributed computing to the rescue. Centauri Dreams readers can thus help investigators with a process that would take an estimated 20 years of continuous scanning were they to do it by themselves. If you want to get involved, go straight to the project’s preregistration page.
But first, we have to get the Stardust samples home. Having performed all but one of its scheduled flight path adjustments, Stardust should release its return capsule in the early morning hours of January 15 after a 2.88 billion mile round-trip. The capsule, striking Earth’s atmosphere at 12.8 kilometers per second, should reach a peak brightness close to that of Venus high over Nevada before parachuting to a landing in the Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City. For more, keep an eye on NASA’s Stardust site.