Need a winter hobby? Stardust@home Virtual Microscope

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Could be fun for a day or two.
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Need a winter hobby? Stardust@home Virtual Microscope

Postby Endobrian » Mon Jan 16, 2006 7:16 pm ... 17&k=22286

NASA is looking for a few good men and women… like you!
Landmark project allows volunteers to contribute to historic study from home.

Now that the space capsule Stardust has successfully returned to our neck of the galactic woods on Sunday and dropped a priceless canister down to Earth after a seven-year journey through outer space, NASA is looking to mine the first-of-its-kind container for clues on how the universe was formed.

On their own, NASA has estimated that it might take them 20 years to pore over the spacecraft’s dust collector, which is thought to have collected 45 microscopic particles of interstellar dust in that may be up to 4.5 billion years old.

There’s a problem or two, however. The aerogel dust collector has also picked up thousands of other particles from a comet whose trail it passed through in 2002, and the dust collector itself is far from pristine after the ordeal, and so NASA scientists now need to distinguish the blemishes and the cometary particles from the precious interstellar particles. Scientists have compared this challenge to finding 45 tiny ants on a football field, while searching one 5cm by 5cm square at a time.

But that’s where the average Jane or Joe sitting at their home computers will come in.

The Stardust’s Interstellar Dust Collector (SIDC) might only be a single square foot in size — about the size of a tennis racket — but since the pieces of dust NASA is looking for are barely a few microns wide, the job won’t be an easy one.

The project is being called Stardust@home, similar to the SETI@home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project ( which launched several years ago by asking Earth-based fans of space exploration to agree to have their computers analyze fragments of data (collected by SETI’s radio telescope) during those times when they weren’t actively using their machines.

But while the SETI@home program was passive, and required no active involvement from the people using it (the program essentially runs as a screensaver), the Stardust@home program will be much more involved, since volunteers will have to alertly examine slides of microscopic data that cover a field of view about the size of a grain of salt. And after spending years in space, the dust collector is dotted and scarred with many tiny pockmarks that can easily be mistaken for the precious few specks of dust they’re looking for.

NASA scientists quickly realized that not even their advanced software programs could do the job of finding these interstellar needles in the haystack, and they were forced to concede that only the attentive eye of a human being might be up to the task.

They also realized that not only could they not accomplish the task expediently on their own, and that they were going to have to throw it open to the general public, but that they also needed to screen candidates in order to find the ones who could tell the microscopic equivalent of their you-know-whats from a hole in the ground.

Everyone interested in participating in the program will first have to pass an electronic screening test, and only after passing that test will they be allowed to download the Stardust@home Virtual Microscope (VM) and subsequent “focus movies,” which will have to be searched by adjusting the program’s focus up and down.

Even if a volunteer thinks they’ve seen something in a particular focus movie, that won’t be the end of it. Each focus movie will be seen by four people, and only if it has been flagged by two of those people will it be sent to a further group of people, none of whom will know about the heightened level of interest in that particular slide. And only if a majority of those people flag it will it be sent along to NASA scientists for further examination and identification.

Think you've got the Right Stuff?

There’s only one way to find out. Visit the Stardust@home project at to pre-register for the program and its initial screening test.

Good luck, live long and prosper, and may the Force be with you!

Alternately, for those who don’t think they’ll have the time to participate — or for those who would like to participate, but are being hampered by attention defecit problems, or eyes that require glasses thicker than Coke bottles — there is still some hope of connecting yourself passively to NASA’s efforts in space.

Interested parties can simply visit and click the Join Us!" link at the top of the page and enter their name in the space provided. Those names entered will then be added to a microchip that will be placed on the Dawn spacecraft, whose mission, according to NASA, is to "characterize the conditions and processes of the solar system's earliest epoch by investigating in detail two of the largest protoplanets remaining intact since their formations."

Fortunately, NASA provides no restrictions requiring people to understand this mission before adding their name to it. The Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to launch on May 27, 2006, when it will head for the vast expanse of space between Mars and Jupiter, to examine the asteroids Ceres and Vesta.
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