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From February to August 2006, Brookhaven National Laboratory hosted a series of very exciting experiments — the analysis of space dust collected by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, which, after nearly seven years collecting cosmic matter during its travels through the solar system, landed safely in Utah in January 2006. The experiments took place at the Lab’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), a facility that uses x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared light for research.

Launched on February 7, 1999, Stardust’s mission was to collect dust and carbon-based compounds from a passing comet, as well as tiny amounts of interstellar dust streaming toward Earth from deep space. The delivery of this material marks the first time since Apollo 17 that a NASA spacecraft has successfully brought back a space-matter sample.

At the NSLS, a portion of that teaspoonful-sized amount of comet and star dust was studied to determine its chemical composition and properties. This information could help answer some very important, very fundamental questions about the formation of the solar system and Earth.

The first samples from Stardust arrived at the NSLS suspended within an “aerogel” substance used to capture them in space. To study the aerogel-encased particles, scientists used extremely tiny and bright infrared and x-ray beams to extract chemical and mineralogical information. These beams are an excellent tool for analyzing the particles,
most which are less than 15 micrometers in diameter. The diameter of a human hair, for comparison, is about 50 micrometers.

Once the particles were extracted from the gel, a powerful x-ray imaging device was used to collect detailed images of some of the smallest particles as well as determine their elemental makeup. In particular, the scientists looked for the element carbon, which can indicate that the particles contain organic compounds — compounds that may have formed at the birth of our solar system.

Infrared light was used to identify specific minerals within the particles, as well as identify any organic compounds that were detected. Unlike x-ray methods, the information collected using these infrared techniques can be compared with the astronomical observations of distant interstellar dust clouds, including those involved with the formation of planetary systems like ours.

 

>> More detailed information about these NSLS experiments and the scientists involved.

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Last Modified: April 27, 2012