How do we find the dust? Ask the network.
Astronomy buffs who jumped at the chance to use their home computers in the [email protected] search for intelligent life in the universe will soon be able to join an Internet-based search for dust grains originating from stars hundreds of thousands of light years away. In a new project called [email protected], University of California, Berkeley, researchers will invite Internet users to help them search for a few dozen submicroscopic grains of interstellar dust captured by NASA's Stardust spacecraft and due to return to Earth in January 2006. This aerogel array, which was mounted atop the Stardust spacecraft, was used to collect interstellar dust particles as well as dust from the tail of comet Wild 2.
The only way that we can think of to find these exciting interstellar dust grains is to recruit talented volunteers to help us search. First, you will go through a web-based training session. This is not for everyone: you must pass a test to qualify to register to participate. After passing the test and registering, you will be able to download a virtual microscope (VM). The VM will automatically connect to our 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 more focus movies you examine, the better the chances are that you'll find an interstellar dust grain. But we have no minimum expectation -- you should search through focus movies as long as you're having fun doing it. Just remember that you are looking at the first collector that has gone into deep space and come back. This is a very special opportunity!