Join us in the search for interstellar dust! On January 15, 2006, the Stardust spacecraft's sample return capsule parachuted gently onto the Utah desert. Nestled within the capsule were precious particles collected during Stardust's dramatic encounter with comet Wild 2 in January of 2004; and something else, even rarer and no less precious: tiny particles of interstellar dust that originated in distant stars, light-years away. They are the first such pristine particles ever collected in space, and scientists are eagerly waiting for their chance to "get their hands" on them.
Before they can be studied, though, these tiny interstellar grains will have to be found. This will not be easy. Unlike the thousand of particles of varying sizes collected from the comet, scientists estimate that Stardust collected only around 45 interstellar dust particles. They are tiny - only about a micron (a millionth of a meter) in size! These miniscule particles are embedded in an aerogel collector 1,000 square centimeters in size. To make things worse, the collector plates are interspersed with flaws, cracks, and an uneven surface. All this makes the interstellar dust particles extremely difficult to locate.
This is where you come in!
By asking for help from talented volunteers like you from all over the world, we can do this project in months instead of years. Of course, we can't invite hundreds of people to our lab to do this search-we only have two microscopes! To find the elusive particles , therefore, we are using an automated scanning microscope to automatically collect images of the entire Stardust interstellar collector at the Curatorial Facility at Johnson Space Center in Houston. We call these stacks of images focus movies. All in all there will be nearly a million such focus movies. These are available to Stardust@home users like you around the world. You can then view them with the aid of a special Virtual Microscope (VM) that works in your web browser.
Together, you and thousands of other Stardust@home participants will find the first pristine interstellar dust particles ever brought to Earth!
In recognition of the critical importance of the Stardust@home volunteers, the discoverer of an interstellar dust particle will appear as a co-author on any scientific paper by the Stardust@home team announcing the discovery of the particle. The discoverer will also have the privilege of naming the particle!
As seen in Chapter 4 of Citizen Science by Caren Cooper.