Science Magazine

First baby steps in the microscopic study of individual contemporary interstellar dust particles

On August 15, 2014, we are publishing in Science magazine a paper titled “Evidence for Interstellar Origin of Seven Particles Returned by the Stardust Mission.” Stardust@home dusters were a critical part of this ground-breaking project. Two Stardust@home dusters, Bruce Hudson and Naomi Wordsworth, are co-authors on this paper. They were the first discoverers of the particles Orion and Hylabrook (which they named).

At the highest level, this project is about understanding our own origins, because this is the stuff that formed our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, the Sun, the planets, and us. We think that we have just taken the first baby step in understanding the complexity and diversity of individual contemporary interstellar dust particles, using microscopes as analytical tools instead of telescopes. This is an entirely new collection of extraterrestrial material.

Most the information that we’ve had on interstellar dust has come from astronomical observations, particularly observations using space-based infrared and x-ray observatories. These have given us some information about some bulk properties of interstellar dust, and theorists have developed models of interstellar dust based on these observations. These models have tended to be the simplest possible ones to explain the observations. But now we think that we have our first glimpse into the complexity and diversity of individual interstellar dust particles. This was made possible by the return of interstellar dust particles that can be studied individually using microscopes (not coincidentally, mostly infrared and x-ray microscopes) instead of telescopes. We found that each of the seven particles is unique, and infer that each must have had its own unique history.

In coordination with the paper in Science, we are also publishing 12 papers in Meteoritics and Planetary Science. After they are out, we plan to make these available to Stardust@home dusters.

I will be writing more about these results in future blog posts. But for now, I just want to say: Congratulations!  And Thank You!


— Andrew Westphal, PhD, Stardust@home Project Director