Stardust was a robotic space probe launched by NASA in 1999 to study the asteroid 5535 Annefrank and collect samples from the coma of comet Wild 2. A sample return capsule landed on Earth in 2006, and while the rest of the world turned its attention to newer missions, work on the Stardust project carried on.
Inside the sample return capsule was an innovative material called aerogel, which was designed to capture tiny particles of interstellar dust that originated in distant stars. To find the particles, researchers are using an automated scanning microscope to collect images of the entire Stardust interstellar collector at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The stacks of images created by this process are called focus movies.
These focus movies are then made available to Stardust@home users around the world. “Dusters” as the participants are called, view them with the aid of a special virtual microscope that works in the web browser. Users focus up and down (just like with a real microscope) in each movie to look for particle tracks, and mark them as track or no track. Now in phase five, Dusters are given a power score and a skill score, and their work is ranked accordingly.
After a thorough search of about one-third of the collector, the project has so far found four particles that appear to be interstellar. The discoverer of an interstellar dust particle will appear as a co-author on the scientific paper by the Stardust@home team announcing the discovery of the particle, and the discoverer also has the privilege of naming the particle.
To get started, have a look at this tutorial and then register and start searching!
Image: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech / Public domain