Dust collected by satellite could be from deep space

15 Aug 2014

Examining the aerogel used to collect the samples of interstellar space dust. Photo by Andrew Westphal, UC Berkeley

A probe by US space agency NASA sent into deep space has returned seven particles of what may be interstellar space dust that could unlock further information about the universe.

While the idea of dust might not be particularly exciting to the average person, the seven particles of dust that have returned on the Stardust satellite could potentially be one of the most important scientific materials on the planet hailing from outside our solar system.

The satellite that has brought back the specimens was launched in 1999 to bring back interstellar dust while also trailing the comet designated Wild-2, according to The Guardian.

The detectors that caught the samples were dropped by the satellite back to Earth in 2006, as the satellite continued on its fly-by of the planet.

Now it appears the dust is in a variety of shapes, including particles that look like snowflakes could have been created millions of years ago by a supernova explosion in interstellar space.

The largest space dust sample found (in the red circle) measures 35 microns. Image by Andrew Westphal, UC Berkeley

Potential scientific breakthroughs

While the exact origin of the dust has yet to be 100pc confirmed, scientists from the University of Berkeley in California believe that if they are indeed from outside our solar system, they could answer a considerable number of questions that, until now, have been explored through a high-powered telescope.

The international team that worked with the dust even expanded its number by 30,000 people, made up of citizen scientists, who all worked on trying to search through microscopic images of the dust.

Curator of the Stardust laboratory at NASA, Michael Zolensky, said the work has been incredibly challenging.

“These are the most challenging objects we will ever have in the lab for study, and it is a triumph that we have made as much progress in their analysis as we have.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic