Today’s Factismal: The Stardust mission returned samples from a comet ten years ago today but the science continues!
There are a lot of things we don’t know in science. But there are a lot of things that we know, too. For example, we know that everything in the Solar System, from the Sun to the Earth to the smallest asteroid, all formed from the same cloud of interstellar dust and gas that collapsed some 4.5 billion years ago. But the Sun is very different from the Earth, which is very different from a comet or an asteroid. So while we know where we came from (as one astronomer used to say “We are all stardust”), how we got here is still something of a mystery. Though we have samples of the rocks on Earth, the Moon, Mars, and several asteroids, all of those have been changed by different geologic processes over the past 4.5 billion years. What we really need to understand how our Solar System formed is a sample of the original material.
And that’s why the NASA Stardust mission happened. In 1999, NASA launched a space probe that was designed to do something that had never been done before: to go to a comet, grab samples of the dust, and return it safely to Earth. The probe looked a little like a five and a half foot long shoe box with a surfboard on either side; the two surfboards were solar panels that supplied the energy to run the instruments. Like other space probes, Stardust included a mass spectrometer to identify the composition of dust and gases it encountered and a camera to provide images. But Stardust’s heart (which was located on the front of the probe) was the sample collector.
In order to collect samples of comet dust without damaging it or heating it up, NASA used aerogel, a material that is 99.8% empty space. Though aerogel had been invented as a bar bet in 1931, it hadn’t found a practical use until the Stardust mission (since NASA popularized the material, it has become very common in some industrial applications). Because aerogel is so light, it would stop the dust grains gradually with a minimum of breakage. And because aerogel is translucent, the tracks made by dust grains could easily be spotted by scientists.
Both aerogel and the mission were an unqualified success. Stardust visited the asteroid 5535 Annefrank and discovered that it is larger and more interesting than previously thought. Stardust successfully captured dust both from between the planets and from comet Wild 2 and discovered that comets may not be as pure as we thought. And Stardust took the names of more than a million people (including me!) out between the planets.
Today, the samples from that mission are being analyzed by people just like you. If you’d like to take a stab at identifying dust grains and helping discover how our Solar System started, then fly on over to: