Image: Stardust at work
NASA
NASA's Stardust spacecraft, shown in this artist's conception, collected particles from Comet Wild 2's coma in 2004. Samples from the comet — as well as samples of interstellar dust — were captured in an aerogel-filled collector during separate periods of exposure.
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updated 1/18/2006 10:10:21 PM ET 2006-01-19T03:10:21

Finding a piece of the cosmos may be as easy as logging onto the Internet for amateur sleuths bent on aiding NASA’s Stardust mission.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley are calling on computer users to join the Stardust @ Home project and help find tiny grains of interstellar dust captured by NASA’s Stardust probe. More than 72,000 users have pre-registered for the project as of Wednesday.

Launched in 1999, the Stardust mothership sent a sample container laden with cometary fragments and interstellar dust grains down to a Utah desert landing site early Sunday. The samples are now being prepared for analysis at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Researchers will have to pore through blocks of a wispy material dubbed aerogel to find the minuscule grains locked within.

Scientists hope the comet and dust samples, ancient material in its own right, will shed new light on composition of distant stars and the origin of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

“These will be the very first contemporary interstellar dust grains every brought back to Earth for study,” Andrew Westphal, the associate director of Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, said in a statement. Westphal developed the technique that NASA will use to digitally scan Stardust’s aerogel packs.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, we would have hired a small army of microscopists who would have hunched over microscopes ... looking for the tracks of these dust grains,” he said.

Image: Particle in aerogel
NASA
This magnified photograph shows a test particle embedded in a sample of aerogel.
For the Stardust mission, Westphal and his colleagues will rely instead on an online “virtual microscope” that allows anyone with an Internet connection to sift through the anticipated 1.5 million aerogel images for interstellar dust tracks. Each image will cover an area smaller than a single grain of salt, researchers said.

Stardust @ home is reminiscent of the UC Berkeley-based SETI @ Home effort and others that rely on volunteers to aid in a larger data analysis project.

But while SETI @ Home allowed computer users to participate in the search of extraterrestrial intelligent life by downloading a screensaver that sifted through myriads of radio signals, the Stardust @ Home project — which is set to begin in mid-March — is a bit more hands-on and comes with a bonus: Dust grain discoverers will get to name their tiny finds.

Volunteer scanners must pay close attention to aerogel images to pick out dust tracks from false signals, and must first pass an initial test using sample pictures, project officials said.

“We will throw in some calibration images that allow us to measure a volunteer’s efficiency,” Westphal said.

Westphal estimates that 30,000 man-hours will be required to go through each image from Stardust’s aerogel sample return capsule four times.

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 Berkeley undergraduates trained to spot aerogel dust tracks.

Researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center will remove the grains once they are identified using specially developed microtweezers and micro-pickle forks, project officials said.

“Stardust is not only the first mission to return samples from a comet, it is the first sample return mission from the galaxy,” Westphal said.

Click here for more information on Berkeley’s Stardust @ Home project.

This report originally appeared on Space.com on Jan. 10 and has been updated by MSNBC.com.

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Video: Sights and sounds of aerogel

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