07 Feb 2006

Stardust arrives at The Open University

NASA delivers

NASA delivers

“Relief”, is the way OU researcher Dr Simon Green (pictured left) described first seeing the small, brown-wrapped parcel containing “stardust” from Comet Wild 2.

The parcel from the Johnson Space Centre Texas arrived at The Open University by special delivery; inside were particles from three billion miles away.

Lab inspection by Dr Green

Lab inspection by Dr Green

It went immediately to a clean room in an OU lab to be carefully unwrapped, and then undergo a preliminary microscopic survey of the metal foil surrounding the comet particles looking for impact craters.

It’s the beginning of research into what could be keys to the origin of life in the universe after NASA’s Stardust mission returned to Earth last month encountering Comet Wild 2 nearly two years ago. This is the first time that samples from a comet and interstellar space have been returned to Earth. The study of comets provides a window to the past as they are the best preserved raw materials in the Solar System.

Stardust captured the particles as it came within 146 miles (240 km) of the comet, surviving the high speed impact of millions of dust particles and small rocks up to nearly half a centimetre across. Stardust’s tennis racket shaped collector captured thousands of these comet particles into cells filled with Aerogel-- a substance so light it almost floats in air.

The first samples have been made available to a small number of teams, including The Open University’s Planetary and Space Science Research Institute (PSSRI), for preliminary analysis before their release to the wider scientific community.

Dr Green says: "It’s going to be hard work; analysis of the samples will present some real technological challenges, but we are extremely excited about the prospect of being involved in the initial studies."

Professor Monica Grady, another member of the Open University research team says: "It is amazing to think that these tiny specks of material can provide so much information about the origin of the stars and planets. Each minute piece plays its own part in adding to our knowledge of the Solar System."

Exactly what’s inside the parcel delivered to The Open University won’t be known for a while.

The preliminary study of the samples will include:
• Mineralogy (particle morphology and composition, mainly by electron microscopy)
• Spectroscopy (particle composition and structure, across all wavelengths from 200nm (UV) to 100m (far IR), plus Raman)
• Foils (impact flux, speed, direction and particle size and size distribution)
• Isotopes (abundance and composition)

Scientists from the Open University, Natural History Museum, Imperial College and University of Kent and University of Manchester are involved in the preliminary research.

Academic contact:
Dr Simon Green 44(0) 1908 659601
Professor Monica Grady 44 (0) 1908 659251

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