Beam Me Up, Stardust: Civilian Science Catches on at NASA

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When I was about ten years old, I went through a phase where I was obsessed with microscopes. I made a massive slideshow presentation for class called "Blow It Up," for which I examined everything in my house—gray hairs, vegetables, fabric, food—under the harsh light of the microscope. I learned fascinating things. Gray hair, for example, is not gray. It's striped black and white.

I assumed my microscope-ing days were over, but yesterday I stopped by the Air and Space Museum for a lecture about the Stardust capsule. Roger Launius, who curates the exhibit the capsule appears in, told the inspiring story of how Stardust left Earth in 1999, traveled 1.5 billion miles to Comet Wild 2, collected specimens of comet dust, and in 2006 returned the samples to Earth. Stardust is the first capsule to bring back a cosmic specimen from beyond the Moon; this is why the capsule is in the Smithsonian.

Then Launius said this: "Through the [email protected] program, citizens can help scientists examine the samples that Stardust brought back."

I ran back to my desk and found this introduction on the [email protected] webpage:

"To find the tiny particles we are using an automated scanning microscope to automatically collect digital images of the entire Stardust interstellar collector. These are available to [email protected] volunteers around the world.

Together, you and thousands of other [email protected] participants will find the first pristine interstellar dust particles ever brought to Earth!

The discoverer of an interstellar dust particle will appear as a co-author on scientific papers by the [email protected] collaboration announcing the discovery of the particle. The discoverer will also have the privilege of naming the particle!"

The challenge brings together two of my favorite things: microscopes, and naming things! I took an online tutorial that showed me how to identify the particles using an online microscope, and then a test where I had to identify "particle tracks" in samples. It was difficult, and the system did say most people didn't pass on the first try.

I passed on the first try. No doubt all the "Blow It Up" experience helped. I'm officially a Stardust "duster." Although scanning ultra-magnified images of specimen gel for tiny particles may sound boring, it's actually addictive.

And should NASA contact me about any of my "discoveries," I'll post it here first.

Photo courtesy of the Air and Space Museum