Crowdsourced Research Helps Indentify Interstellar Dust Particles

Image Credit: Andrew Westphal, UC Berkeley

Image Credit: Andrew Westphal, UC Berkeley

NASA’s JPL has a news story about the the possible discovery of interstellar dust particles trapped in aerogel designed just for just that purpose and included aboard the appropriately named Stardust space probe. Stardust flew through the tail of the comet Wild 2 in 2004, returning its samples to Earth the next year in the fastest atmospheric entry ever recorded by a man-made object. That return used a new type of ablative heat shield made out called PICA (Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator) SpaceX subsequently modified PICA to become PICA-X which it uses for the Dragon spacecraft.

If confirmed (and really, how doe you ever know for sure in a case like this) the discovery of the interstellar particles mark a minor but interesting sort of “first contact.”

One thing which stands out about the story however, is the extent to which crowd-sourced science has played the key role in locating the minute particles through the tracks they left in the aerojel.

According to the story:

“Two particles, each only about two microns (thousandths of a millimeter) in diameter, were isolated after their tracks were discovered by a group of citizen scientists. These volunteers, who call themselves “Dusters,” scanned more than a million images as part of a University of California, Berkeley, citizen-science project, which proved critical to finding these needles in a haystack.

A third track, following the direction of the wind during flight, was left by a particle that apparently was moving so fast — more than 10 miles per second (15 kilometers per second) — that it vaporized. Volunteers identified tracks left by another 29 particles that were determined to have been kicked out of the spacecraft into the collectors.”

More evidence of the evolving role distributed, or crowd sourced research and analysis is playing in making meaningful contributions to science.  The full story is here.

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