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24 September 2014

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Science and Nature

Comet Wild-2
Comet Wild-2

When the cosmic dust settles…

Seven years ago, NASA launched Stardust at the speeding comet, Wild-2 to collect samples from it and return them to Earth for analysis. Now, Manchester’s playing its part in unlocking the mysteries of the universe hidden in that cosmic dust.

Dr Torsten Henkel and Dr Sarah Crowther
Dr Torsten Henkel and Dr Sarah Crowther

Scientists at The University of Manchester will be among the first in the world to receive dust and Dr Torsten Henkel and Dr Sarah Crowther, who will be in charge of analysing the samples, are understandably excited, thanks in some part to the composition of the comet.

"Comets are dirty ice balls," says Dr Henkel, "so are really cold and therefore keep the material fresh, so it won’t be altered. We’ll really get a look four and a half billion years back at what our solar system was like."

A comet particle suspended in aerogel
A comet particle suspended in aerogel

But why do scientists need to crash into a comet to collect ancient dust? Couldn’t the same dust be taken from sites like the Grand Canyon in the US? Dr Henkel says not.

"All the material in our solar system comes from stars, and we can probably find out which kind of stars the comet dust has come from or under what conditions it formed. The stuff in the Grand Canyon has altered and been overwritten so it would only allow us to look back three billion years or two billion or something."

"It tells us how the solar system started, how it turned from small grains to bigger particles and eventually asteroids, planetoids, planets!"
Dr Henkel on what the comet dust will show

Whatever the scientists do find out, they’ll have to make their discoveries from a tiny amount of the dust, as Dr Crowther says that they only expect to get "a few grains and they’re a fraction of the diameter of a human hair."

Thankfully, the university has a pair of instruments, the Interstellar Dust Laser Explorer (IDLE) and the Refrigerator Enhanced Laser Analysis for Xenon (RELAX), which are ideally suited to extracting anything interesting from the particles. IDLE profiles the chemical make-up of the dust particles, using beams of ions to create magnified images of materials at a molecular level, while RELAX looks at the Xenon in the isotope patterns to see how it compares to what is found on Earth. Dr Henkel is sure that a lot can be learnt from the dust via the machines.

Animation of Stardust's flyby images of Wild-2
Animation of Stardust's flyby of Wild-2

"Using IDLE, we can have less than a micron of solution and still look into these particles and see what they are made of, how heterogeneous they are, what are the building blocks of the solar system and what the chemical composition of them is."

Dr Henkel is pretty sure that the secrets of the universe lie within the material.

The launch of Stardust in 1999
The launch of Stardust in 1999

"It tells us how the solar system started and formed, how it turned from small dust grains and gas to bigger and bigger particles and eventually asteroids, planetoids, planets! It’s all in the chemical composition and how things are changing. Xenon, for example, is a noble gas, it doesn’t react with other elements, so therefore you can trace alterations, tell how hot it’s been by changes in patterns and things like that."

Quite what they will find when the test their samples remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that by taking part in the research, the pair have secured Manchester’s place in the story of the universe.

last updated: 20/01/06
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