This morning I took a test that measured my ability to find trails left by the impact of interstellar dust particles in chunks of aerogel, as viewed online through a virtual microscope. I passed.

Then I registered with UC Berkeley’s Stardust@Home program and became an official dust-finder.

Stardust@Home is a project where ordinary people with an internet connection can volunteer to do science for UC Berkeley’s physics department. NASA’s Stardust mission collected interstellar dust particles; now UC Berkeley is studying them. But there are about 40,000 slides to look at to find the 50 or so (? — that’s according to a CS Monitor article I read) grains of space dust the aerogel trapped and brought back to Earth.

The complexity involved in spotting and recognizing the odd-shaped trails is actually better handled by a person than a computer. So UC Berkeley came up with Stardust@Home, a program where anybody who can pass the dust-spotting test can help search through the thousands of slides.

The image in this post is a still of a stardust slide, shown actual size. No trails here…

The test is kind of fun, if you have sharp eyes, patience, a love of detail and a Sunday morning with nothing too pressing to do (that would be me on all four counts). First you click through an online tutorial where you learn how to tell what’s an earthly dust-mote on the surface of the aerogel and what’s an impact trail left when an interstellar mote hit. If you pass (and according to the website most don’t the first time — I did, but I am anal-retentive, shamelessly detail-oriented, and have really good vision) you get a log-in name and password, and you’re off to look at the images.

If you are the first to find a trail, you get to name the particle:

In recognition of the critical importance of the Stardust@home volunteers, the discoverer of an interstellar dust particle will appear as a co-author on any scientific paper by the Stardust@home collaboration announcing the discovery of the particle. The discoverer will also have the privilege of naming the particle! Each particle, as it is discovered, will be given some kind of alpha-numeric identifier (an address of sorts) for book-keeping purposes. But the name that people will actually call each particle will be given to it by its discoverer.

Here’s more about NASA’s Stardust mission:

Here’s an image of the Stardust dust collector with aerogel blocks.

Here are the last words from Stardust@Home you see before you get a login name and password and get to go play with stardust and the virtual microscope:

If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right

Expect the Unexpected

This is research: the outcome of this project is highly uncertain

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