Friday, January 13, 2006
NASA is awaiting the arrival of very precious cargo from space.
The Stardust Spacecraft is scheduled to land at around 5:12am (eastern time) on Sunday January 15, 2006. Onboard are dust particles that have been collected from the comet Wild 2.
When the capsule gets to Earth and enters the atmosphere, at about 5am (eastern time), it is expected to put on quite a light show for folks in Northern California, Oregon, Nevada, and Utah. The capsule will look much like a shooting star going across the sky. The capsule will be traveling at about 12.8 km or 8 miles per second, fast enough to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one minute. Stardust will set a new all-time record for being the fastest spacecraft to return to Earth, breaking the previous record set in May of 1969 during the return of the Apollo X command module. “It will move over the west coast of northern California and will light the sky from California through central Oregon and on through Nevada and Idaho and into Utah,” Tom Duxbury, Stardust’s project manager said.
The capsule will then release a parachute approximately 32 km (105,000 feet) and descend into the Salt Flats of Utah. If weather is permitting, it will be recovered by helicopter teams and taken to a cleanroom at the Michael Army Air Field, Dugway Proving Ground, for initial processing.
The capsule itself, only weighs 45.7 kilograms (101 pounds) and resembles a mini Apollo capsule.
Not only will it break the record for the fastest spacecraft to return to earth, Stardust Principal Investigator Don Brownlee of the University of Washington, Seattle, says “We are nearing the end of quite a fantastic voyage – our spacecraft has traveled further than anything from Earth ever has – and come back. He also added that “We went half-way to Jupiter to meet the comet and collect samples from it. But the comet actually came in from the outer edge of the solar system, out beyond the orbit of Neptune, out by Pluto.”
If the capsule makes it safely back to earth, scientists hope to unlock many secrets about the formation of our universe.
“Locked within the cometary particles is unique chemical and physical information that could be the record of the formation of the planets and the materials from which they were made,” said Dr. Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator at the University of Washington, Seattle.
“Comets are some of the most informative occupants of the solar system. The more we can learn from science exploration missions like Stardust, the more we can prepare for human exploration to the moon, Mars and beyond,” said Dr. Mary Cleave, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Stardust is bringing back the first samples of contemporary interstellar dust ever collected, and is also the first mission to return samples from a comet, as well as the first sample return mission from the Galaxy. Not one grain of contemporary interstellar dust grain has ever been examined in a laboratory before.
“We think a significant fraction of comets will be stardust particles actually older than Earth and older than the Sun, and for drama the stars, and the way you identify those is by their isotopic ratios,” Stardust Principal Investigator Don Brownlee said. “There are fabulous tools now to analyze these and a very anxious group of scientists waiting for these samples.”
Stardust’s main mission was to capture dust particles from comet Wild 2, but it is also believed to have captured dust from distant stars, perhaps created in supernova explosions less than 10 million years ago.
The dust can only be found using using a high-magnification microscope with a field of view smaller than a grain of salt.
But now they have the difficult task of trying to find all these millions of particles, which takes more time and man power that NASA has. That’s where NASA decided to try Distributed Computing.
Distributed computing has been a huge success. Most of the credit of the success of distributed computing, can be given to the scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. Scientists there have had and continue to have huge success with a program they created called SETI@home, which now uses the distributing platform BOINC.
With the success of BOINC and other distributed computing platforms, NASA hopes to achieve its goal in half the time with the public’s help by creating the project Stardust@home
“Like SETI@home, which is the world’s largest computer, we hope Stardust@home will also be a large computer, though more of a neural network, using brains together to find these grains,” said Bryan Mendez of the Center for Science Education at the Space Sciences Laboratory.
But, the project is not for everyone. First, you will go through a web-based training session and then you must pass a test to qualify to register and participate. In the test, the volunteer is asked to find the track in a few test samples. To judge the reliability of the user, they also plan to throw in some ringers with and without tracks.
If at least two of the four volunteers viewing each image report a track, that image will be fed to 100 more volunteers for verification. If at least 20 of these report a track, UC Berkeley undergraduates who are expert at spotting dust grain tracks will confirm the identification.
After passing the test and registering, you will be able to download a virtual microscope (VM). The VM will automatically connect to their server and download so-called “focus movies” — stacks of images that we will collect from the Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector using an automated microscope at the Cosmic Dust Lab at Johnson Space Center. The VM will work on your computer, under your control. You will search each field for interstellar dust impacts by focusing up and down with a focus control.
The other neat thing is that there are no limitations and the more images you examine, the better chance you have at finding an interstellar dust grain.
Any interstellar dust particles that you find, then you will appear as a co-author on any scientific paper by the Stardust@home collaboration announcing the discovery of the particle.
Currently the project is only accepting pre-registration and will be available to the public in mid-March, even before all the scans have been completed in a cleanroom at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. In all the project is expected to need at least 30,000 person hours, to go through all the images, at least 4 times by 4 different participants.
Berkeley will host and maintain the project, but it is unlcear as to whether or not the project will use the BOINC platform.
The virtual microscope was developed by computer scientist David Anderson, director of the SETI@home project, along with physics graduate student Joshua Von Korff.
The Stardust spacecraft was launched on February 7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, aboard a Delta II rocket.
The Stardust project is expected to cost $170-million-dollars with a journey that will have lasted over 7 years and actually went around the Sun three times, and “back in time to 4.5 billion years in time to gather these primitive samples that just were released from a comet’s nucleus,” Duxbury later added.