It may not sound like much, but the discovery of interstellar dust aboard the Stardust spacecraft means the 2.9 billion mile journey undertaken by the craft in a mission to collect dust that may tell us about the formation of the solar system and give us a firmer grasp of what conditions were like at the creation of the universe itself. And now that scientists have conclusively found these dust particles within the trapping mechanism of one of these craft, it will provide insight into what these conditions were like.
The tiny particles of dust were gathered during the long journey as the Stardust was following the tail of the comet Wild 2, but the journey was a long one and it had vast amounts of opportunity to use its aerogel containers to collect and store dust from other sources, particularly those that were merely just floating around in the void of space. The porous substance aboard the craft was perfect for the collection of molecules. In 2006 the craft finally returned to Earth along with its precious cargo, but only recently have scientists actually reported success in the discovery of interstellar dust within the aerogel filters. Due to its fine size and the painstaking conditions under which the dust must be extracted to prevent contamination, it’s understandable why the materials were not discovered until recently.
Thus far only two interstellar dust grains have been discovered in the SIDC’s gel storage compartments. Given the multi-billion mile journey, it should be indicative of just how empty space is between planets and debris fields. The announcement came from Dr. Andrew Westphal, from the University of California during the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in the Woodlands, Texas. Dr. Westphal was quoted during the conference as saying, “There are two particles, but they are in the same track. So when they hit the aerogel, they were together – they are two components of the same particle, but they are very different from each other. That in itself is interesting, because if this does turn out to be interstellar dust, then it is a bit more heterogeneous than people thought.”
The first particle was discovered by Bruce Hudson after countless hours of painstaking search. The name he gave to the particle was “Orion.” Later another particle was discovered and dubbed “Sirius.” The team has described their reaction as cautiously excited, since they don’t want a false alarm and there is some possibility that the discovery could be a false positive. The current analysis the team is doing on the particles has some danger of being damaging to the particle, and as a result special care is being taken to record the analysis thoroughly.
Of course interstellar dust around global bodies has a reputation for being a problem as it is more commonplace in these areas and can actually be so common that it can cause massive problems if it gets into equipment and/or finds itself resting on sensitive equipment such as the lenses of telescopes.