Astronomy buffs who've hankered to name a bit of the cosmos after themselves may soon get their chance. To coincide with the return of NASA's Stardust spacecraft to Earth on 15 January, researchers are inviting home computer users to help search through digital images for interstellar dust grains in a project dubbed Stardust@home.
Interstellar dust, which emanates from supernovas and aged stars, remains an enigma. “No one has ever had a contemporary interstellar dust particle in the lab, ever,” says Stardust@home lead investigator Andrew Westphal of the University of California, Berkeley. “My prediction is there's going to be some huge surprises.”
Volunteers who pass an online training session will download a virtual microscope and use it to peer at images of the spacecraft's foamy aerogel traps, probing for tracks burrowed by particles. Researchers expect to find only about 50 micrometer-sized grains in the 1.6 million images. To ward off frustration and encourage competition, many pictures will be spiked with artificial particle tracks. Lucky discoverers will get to name their particles and be listed as co-authors on scientific papers.