Magnet Lab to Analyze Stardust Mission's Comet Dust

Jan 13, 2006
Artist's impression of Stardust's encounter with Comet Wild 2. Credit: NASA
Artist´s impression of Stardust´s encounter with Comet Wild 2. Scientists believe the material snatched from the trail of a comet could provide dramatic information about the birth of the solar system and the origins of life on Earth. Launched in 1999, the 385-kilogram (849-pound) probe, circled the Sun twice and then flew in January 2004 by comet Wild 2, which was located at the time next to Jupiter. Credit: NASA

The Stardust spacecraft that left Florida seven years ago is expected to have its homecoming early Sunday in Utah, bringing with it tiny particles of comet dust that are expected to unlock big secrets about the origin of our solar system. A few months later, scientists in the Geochemistry Program at Tallahassee's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory will study some of those particles as they seek to discover our cosmic ancestry.

With grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation and matching funds from Florida State University, the magnet lab will acquire a mass-spectrometry-based "microanalysis" system for studying this and other extraterrestrial material. The state-of-the-art instrument will be housed in the lab's forthcoming Plasma Analytical Facility.

A supplemental grant also will fund educational outreach to local schools and the development of additional science-education materials for teachers through the Research Experiences for Teachers program run by the lab's Center for Integrating Research and Learning (CIRL) (education.magnet.fsu.edu).

Munir Humayun, an associate professor of geochemistry at FSU and one of the principal investigators on the grant, said the magnet lab's new spectrometers will be able to glean 40 times more information from the sample than traditional microanalysis techniques allow.

"The genealogy of the solar system is recorded in comets," said Humayun, a cosmochemistry expert. "These grains of authentic cometary material, together with the new techniques for studying them, will help us develop a deeper understanding of the formation of asteroids and comets. Understanding their origins will help us better understand our own."

Mass spectrometry - a technique for measuring the mass of atoms or molecules - is a key strength of the scientists at the magnet lab. The technique converts molecules to ions that then are separated, using magnetic fields, according to the ratio of their mass to electric charge. At the lab, scientists will "shoot" the cosmic dust with a laser, vaporizing the grains and turning them into an aerosol. That aerosol then will be simultaneously directed to two different mass spectrometers for analyses; one spectrometer will scan the sample for major elements, while the other measures a selection of the trace constituents. This will tell the scientists what elements are in the grains; from that, insights into the processes that formed the comets will be learned.

A covered patio area at the lab will be converted into the Plasma Analytical Facility. Construction will start after the lab's annual Open House, scheduled this year for Feb. 18. (See www.magnet.fsu.edu for more information).

Educational outreach is a special component of the grant. Mary Gaboardi, an FSU graduate student in geochemistry, will work with local teachers to bring "Comet Tales" - a hands-on educational program based on the Stardust mission - into the classroom.

"If you want to teach science, you have to capture the imagination of the student," Gaboardi said. "That is why we are so excited to share this NASA mission with local students. The grains Stardust is bringing back will allow us to peer through time into the very birth of the solar system. That should fascinate anyone!"

"Comet Tales" is a two- to three-week science inquiry program. Fifteen Tallahassee-area classrooms will be selected to participate, based on teacher interest and application. Five each of fifth-, sixth- and ninth-grade teachers will receive supplies and assistance to complete the NASA-approved program "Technology for Studying Comets" with their students.

In this program, students work cooperatively, exploring technology and creating collection tools like the ones used on the Stardust mission. Gaboardi said the focus is on technology, because without recent innovations such as aerogel (see stardust1.jpl.nasa.gov/tech/aerogel.html), scientists would not have the chance to make leaps of learning in space science. During the program, Gaboardi will visit each classroom to introduce comet properties, answer questions, and assist the students in "cooking up a comet."

Teacher training is scheduled for March 17, and the program is expected to run from March 27 to April 21. After the program ends, each teacher will choose one student to represent his or her classroom at the magnet lab for a day as "Stellar Students." These students will tour the lab, where they will observe research activities in the Cosmochemistry Lab and meet the researchers.

Gaboardi and Humayun also will work with four teachers in the lab's Research Experience for Teachers program this summer, with the teachers ultimately translating their research experience into teaching and learning opportunities for their classrooms.

Source: Florida State University

Explore further: Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Learning from biology to create new materials

Feb 11, 2014

In nature, some organisms create their own mineralized body parts—such as bone, teeth and shells—from sources they find readily available in their environment. Certain sea creatures, for example, construct ...

IBM brings Watson to Africa

Feb 06, 2014

IBM has launched a 10-year initiative to bring Watson and other cognitive systems to Africa in a bid to fuel development and spur business opportunities across the world's fastest growing continent. Dubbed ...

Recommended for you

Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

2 hours ago

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… ...

Rosetta instrument commissioning continues

3 hours ago

We're now in week four of six dedicated to commissioning Rosetta's science instruments after the long hibernation period, with the majority now having completed at least a first initial switch on.

Astronaut salary

3 hours ago

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

A sharp eye on Southern binary stars

3 hours ago

Unlike our sun, with its retinue of orbiting planets, many stars in the sky orbit around a second star. These binary stars, with orbital periods ranging from days to centuries, have long been the primary ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

4 hours ago

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

A sharp eye on Southern binary stars

Unlike our sun, with its retinue of orbiting planets, many stars in the sky orbit around a second star. These binary stars, with orbital periods ranging from days to centuries, have long been the primary ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Astronaut salary

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

Turning off depression in the brain

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

There's something ancient in the icebox

Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrape off everything—vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock. So scientists were greatly surprised ...

Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

Up to now, HONO, also known as nitrous acid, was considered one of the most important sources of hydroxyl radicals (OH), which are regarded as the detergent of the atmosphere, allowing the air to clean itself. ...