By KEAY DAVIDSON
San Francisco Chronicle
January 13, 2006
Over the past seven years, invisibly small grains of interstellar dust have slammed into slabs of lightweight material aboard the Stardust robotic spacecraft, which is scheduled to fall back to Earth, landing in Utah, early Sunday.
News media have played up Stardust's recovery of samples of matter from the misty halo that surrounds a comet. But the captured interstellar particles - wayfarers flitting through our solar system that originated in the outer sea of stars known as the Milky Way galaxy - are also of inestimable value, University of California scientists say.
The trouble is, instruments aboard Stardust indicate that the interstellar particles accumulated over the seven-year flight are few in number - about 45. They're so tiny - their size is measured in millionths of a meter - that they're impossible to see with the naked eye. Searching for a single particle is likely to be akin to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
So scientists connected with the Stardust mission hope to get some help: They plan to post online 1.5 million images of every square inch of the aerogel slabs into which the particles plunged and ask volunteers to scan them for possible interstellar dust particles.
Preliminary registration for the volunteer effort - which is open to anyone on Earth regardless of nationality - already has begun: "We've gotten, as of a few minutes ago, almost up to 10,000 people who've registered on our Web site," said Andrew Westphal, associate director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the university.
Youngsters, too, are welcome: "I wouldn't be surprised at all if kids are better at this than anybody partly because they don't have any preconceptions for what these (particles) look like," Westphal said. A likely clue to the presence of an interstellar particle is a carrot-shaped path carved out as the tiny object plunges into the aerogel.
The call for help is the latest in a long series of scientific projects over the last century in which scientists swamped by Niagaras of new data have called on outside volunteers for assistance. For example, in the 1950s, physicists enlisted large teams of volunteers - especially women, who for whatever reason seemed to have a special knack for the work - to pore through stacks and stacks of images from particle accelerators in search of strange streaks that revealed previously unknown types of subatomic particles.
"This is an approach really born of desperation," given the expected abundance of images that will need to be examined, Westphal said.
According to tentative plans, whoever finds the first interstellar dust particle will be allowed to pick its name, but "it can't be obscene," Westphal noted.
How to volunteer: To register to help scientists analyze pictures of particles collected by Stardust, go to stardustathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/participation.
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