If all goes well Sunday, a 100-pound space capsule called Stardust will come screaming into the atmosphere at nearly 29,000 mph, faster than any human-made object to date and land on the Utah desert (maps and videos) at 5:12 a.m. EST (1012 GMT) on Jan. 15, 2006.
Within the spacecraft’s sample container are pieces of Comet Wild 2 (pronounced “Vilt 2”) and interstellar dust – trapped in aerogel. The tiny particles in the capsule are thought to hold the original materials from which everything in our solar system, including life, was created.Stardust is not only the first mission to return samples from a comet, it is the first sample return mission from the galaxy, said Andrew Westphal, the associate director of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory.
Researchers at Berkeley are calling on computer users to join the Stardust@home project and help find tiny grains of interstellar dust captured by NASA’s Stardust probe.
Launched in 1999, Stardust is expected to send a sample container laden with cometary fragments and interstellar dust grains. Scientists hope the comet and dust samples will shed new light on composition of distant stars and the origin of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
“These will be the very first contemporary interstellar dust grains every brought back to Earth for study,” said Andrew Westphal, the associate director of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory who developed the technique NASA will use to digitally scan Stardust’s aerogel packs. “Twenty or 30 years ago, we would have hired a small army of microscopists who would have hunched over microscopes…looking for the tracks of these dust grains.”
NASA will rely on an online “virtual microscope” that allows anyone with an Internet connection to sift through the anticipated 1.5 million aerogel images for interstellar dust tracks. Each image will cover an area smaller than a single grain of salt, researchers said.
Stardust@home is reminiscent of the UC Berkeley-based SETI@home effort and others that rely on volunteers to aid in a larger data analysis project.
But while SETI@home allowed computer users to participate in the search of extraterrestrial intelligent life by downloading a screensaver that sifted through myriads of radio signals, the Stardust@home project – which is set to begin in mid-March – is a bit more hands-on and comes with a bonus: Dust grain discoverers will get to name their tiny finds.
Volunteer scanners must pay close attention to aerogel images to pick out dust tracks from false signals and must first pass an initial test using sample pictures, project officials said.
In 2004, Genesis—a sister mission of Stardust—made a similar return, jettisoning a sample return capsule four-times the mass of Stardust.
Due to improperly placed sensors on the Genesis capsule, however, its parachute system failed to deploy. That resulted in a precisely placed, but busted-up capsule when the vessel hit the desert landscape at high speed.
Astrobiology Magazine features The Martian Cronciles, a multipart series with Steve Squyres, showing the inside story of the Mars missionS. Portland State University’s Sherry Cady (left), an Astrobiologist in Portland, edits the more academic Astrobiology Journal. Exobiology is live on the net.
In 2011 NASA plans to bring Martian soil back to Earth. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) wants to stop it.
More research is needed to determine whether potentially dangerous life forms exist on Mars before a manned mission to the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor can go ahead, a NASA advisory panel has warned. ICAMSR warns that “from the years 1347 – 1350, one quarter of the European population died as a result of a flea from China carrying an unfamiliar microbe”.
“After living in the dirt of Mars, a pathogen could see our bodies as a comparable host,” says John Rummel, Planetary Protection Officer for Earth. John Barros thinks extraterrestials should go to the University of Washington for Astrobiology study.
The Mars Exobiology strategy is being executed with the help of Planetary Protection Officer for Mars, Bill Horsley, who must prevent contamination between Earth and Mars. It’s not immediately clear who resolves jurisdictional disputes between Planetary and Solar System Protection Officers or who calls the shots for extraterrestrial contact.
More information is available at Space.com, SpaceNews, Florida Today, Spaceflight Now, World SpaceFlight News, MSN Space, Space Today, Jonathan’s Space Report, Space and Missile Times, Yahoo Space News, Yahoo Full Covergage and Google News.
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