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NASA captures first star dust

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NASA announced the discovery of the first material captured by a spacecraft that has a verifiable extraterrestrial origin in the Aug. 15, 2014, issue of the journal Science. The seven microscopic grains of dust were captured by NASA's Stardust spacecraft in 2006. Andrew Westphal, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, and a host of professional scientists and amateur space enthusiasts are responsible for identifying the first matter with an extraterrestrial origin that has been captured in space by man.

The Stardust spacecraft was launched with the intent of capturing space dust from a comet named Wild 2 and collecting matter along the four-year voyage to the comet. The material that was collected is between 50 million years of age and 100 million years of age. A large part of the material collected was vaporized due to the high speed of the interstellar dust (10 miles per second) when the dust encountered the collectors on the Stardust spacecraft.

The collectors were photographed and both professional scientists and a minimum of 714 amateur space enthusiasts (self-described as “Dusters") have been examining the collectors for space dust for the last eight years. The researchers have found seven verifiable particles of space dust. The two largest particles contain a magnesium-iron-silicate mineral called olivine. This discovery indicates that space dust associated with comets and all space dust has a much more complex chemistry than previously thought.

Only 58 percent of the collectors have been completely examined to date. The analysis is heralded by the researchers at NASA as a milestone in citizen science. The analysis could never have been completed to the extent that it has been without the work of amateur space researchers who combed the photographs for signs of dust from space. Each particle that has been found thus far has been named and some have been rightly named for the “Dusters” who found them.