Exclusive: David Anderson talks about the Stardust@home project

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

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Following the return of the Stardust space capsule from its encounter with the Comet Wild 2, NASA scientists have come up with a novel approach to dealing with the samples of "interstellar dust" that have been collected; they want help from the public.

The Stardust spacecraft carried an aerogel-based dust collector, which was exposed to space in varying orientations during different phases of the mission.

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Only one side of the collector was exposed towards the stream of particles coming off the Comet Wild 2 during the encounter in 2004, while the other side was used to collect interstellar dust at an earlier point in the spacecraft's journey.

Although scientists have seen the particles captured from comet Wild 2 when they examined the aerogel, they have not examined any of the particles expected on the other side of the collector due to their smallness. They will be examined after they are found with the help of Stardust@home. It is believed that on the order of 50 interstellar dust particles impacted the aerogel, each now resting inside a tiny crater.

Dr. Peter Tsou, Stardust deputy principal investigator, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, holds a Stardust sample tray while speaking to various news media representatives during a press conference at Johnson Space Center.

Stardust traveled nearly three billion miles and its mission lasted seven years. At times it was traveling at 8 miles a second. Thats fast enough to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one minute.

Stardust 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(10) command module. Don Brownlee of the University of Washington, Seattle said "our spacecraft has traveled further than anything from Earth ever has – and came back. 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."

In a move similar to some distributed computing projects, the analysis work for the project will be spread among volunteers on the Internet, who are being asked to participate in this scientific undertaking.

Wikinews reporter Jason Safoutin investigated the Stardust@home project, and discussed its goals with one of its founders. Via email, he interviewed David P. Anderson, a founder of the SETI@home project, and one of the creators of the Virtual Microscope which will be used to search for captured particles from interstellar space.

I was wondering If I could get some questions answered or if you could give me some "insider" info for the project. I am aware that you are taking place in the development of the VM (Virtual Microscope)...Could I know more about that? The 'virtual microscope' lets you scan through a set of images as if you were turning the focus knob on a microscope. The images are fairly large (about 100 KB each) so it's important to pre-load the images. While you're looking through one set of images, the VM is busy downloading the JPEG files for the next set.

David P. Anderson, one of the creaters of Stardust@home's Virtual Microscope and Director of SETI@home.

At first we thought we'd have to do this with a Java applet or Flash program - something tricky and complicated. My contribution was to point out that it could be done fairly easily using Javascript, and I wrote a prototype of this.

Will this project use the BOINC Platform/Program?

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No. We thought about using some parts of BOINC (like the database and web pages for creating "accounts") but it was easier just to do this from scratch.

How long will the project take?

It depends how many volunteers participate, and how fast they look at the 'focus movies'. It will probably be just a month or two.

Anyone can join but they have to take a test before they can participate. What will the test include?

Looking at some focus movies and deciding whether they contain a dust particle. Participants see a lot of training examples before they take the test. It's easy, not like a test in school.

How many will be allowed to participate?

No limit as of now.

When will the project start?

I think in about 2 months. It will take that long to transport the aerogel to the laboratory, and photograph it with the microscope. The software is ready to go.

Will the VM project analyze any of the particles or just look for them?

Stardust@home will only locate the particles. When they are located, they will be cut out of the aerogel and physically analyzed.

Thank you for your time David. And great work on the upcoming project and SETI@home.

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