Astronomical Data Retrieval

Tomorrow at 0900GMT NASA’s Stardust probe will, hopefully, drift slowly to ground on the salt flats of Utah, carrying with it a sample from Comet P/Wild 2. This sample was collected as the comet passed by at 6km/sec, or 6 times faster than a rifle bullet, and contains particles which should help considerably in the understanding of both comets and the formation of the solar system. The last time a probe like this returned the results weren’t so good. Solar wind atoms were recovered from the Genesis probe, however, so it wasn’t a total loss. The NASA team say they’ve tested the Stardust systems as best they can, but all they can do now is wait. Unlike Genesis, this probe is to land on the surface rather than requiring entertaining helicopter-based mid-air snatches. The probe’s current position can be seen here.

Assuming everything goes to plan, the sample returned will contain both samples from the comet as well as particles from the space around it. The latter will be in extremely small quantities, and due to the size being smaller than a grain of salt will be extremely difficult to find. It’s estimated that over 30,000 man hours will be needed to find these grains, but instead of employing ‘a small army of microscopists’ to analyse over 1.5 million images they’re turning to the internet community. Much like seti@home, volunteers can download a small program then analyse data as it’s released by NASA. Space.com says:

According to the Stardust@home plan, if two out of four volunteers claim to find a dust track the corresponding image will be sent to 100 more volunteers for verification. Should at least one-fifth of those reviewers affirm the find, the image will be kicked up to a team of UC Berkeley undergraduates trained to spot aerogel dust tracks.

Must sign up for that. Using this technique it’s anticipated that the project should be completed by the end of the year.

While we’re talking about all things astronomical, isn’t it fantastic that the Mars Rovers are still going, one martian and two terran years after landing? They were only meant to survive six months or so, but have coped through two martian winters, in the process finding conclusive evidence of a once-liquid surface, as well as vast amounts of geological data, the first dust devil ever seen on another planet, a martian eclipse, a a meteorite and even a bunny. Opportunity has driven just over 4 miles, while Spirit’s at 3.75. Amazing!