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The stardust hunt is on

After months of preparation, the Stardust @ Home treasure hunt kicks off on Tuesday, with tens of thousands of Internet users primed to look for grains of dust from beyond the solar system. The research effort adds a human touch to the grand tradition of distributed-computing projects such as SETI @ Home.

An artist's conception shows tracks

of particles embedded within

Stardust's aerogel-filled collector.

In actuality, it won't be this easy to

spot the tracks.

Beginning at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, you'll be able to click into the Stardust @ Home Web site and start scanning the actual photomicrographs of interstellar-dust collectors from NASA's Stardust probe. Using a novel "virtual microscope," you can look for the telltale trails of bits that embedded themselves in Stardust's fluffy cubes of aerogel.

During its seven-year mission, Stardust's racket-shaped collector snagged flecks from Comet Wild 2 on one side, and perhaps 50 to 100 bits of interstellar dust on the other side. Those bits could provide new clues to our cosmic origins - but they're not easy to find. The project's amateur researchers will have to look through 700,000 or more "focus movies" multiple times in order to spot the flecks.

You'll have plenty of company in the task: Andrew Westphal, Stardust @ Home's project director and associate director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, told me that 115,000 users already have signed up to participate. That's not quite as many as the roughly 500,000 active users for SETI @ Home, the search for alien signals, but if all those people join in, Stardust @ Home would still rank as one of the world's biggest distributed-computing projects.

"We think that we have a science team of 115,000 people," Westphal said.

This time, the emphasis is on the people rather than raw computing power. The project depends on people actually spotting the dust tracks and reporting them, rather than just letting a computer churn away unattended.

"It's a pattern that's very obvious to people, but it's almost impossible to program a computer to recognize it," said Amir Alexander of the California-based Planetary Society, one of the beta testers. (The Planetary Society is a collaborator in the Stardust @ Home and the SETI @ Home projects.)

Alexander said doing the search didn't seem tedious to him. "It's really kind of like a computer game - once you get the hang of it, it's pretty addictive," he told me.

Stardust @ Home / Planetary Society
This screenshot provides a preview of

Stardust @ Home's "virtual microscope."

Westphal expects the project to run for many months. "The bottleneck of the project ... is how fast we can collect the interstellar images," he said. So far, 11 of Stardust's 132 collection tiles have been scanned, and another four tiles are due to be scanned every week at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

To keep the searchers interested - and to make sure they're on the ball - Westphal's team is adding simulated dust trails to the imagery. The users' skill at spotting the simulated trails (as well as the actual trails, of course) will be factored into their score. "As they go along, they will be kept up to date on how they're doing," Westphal said.

Each microscopic area will be looked at multiple times to make sure nothing is missed - and everlasting glory awaits those who are the first to spot honest-to-goodness dust grains.

Westphal said the first person to discover a particular grain has the "privilege of naming the particle," as long as the name isn't obscene or otherwise objectionable. The discoverers also "will be co-authors on any papers that we write" associated with their particular bits, Westphal said.

Everyone should start out on roughly equal footing, Westphal said. The earlier beta tests were carried out with simulated Stardust imagery. Meanwhile, the actual microscopic imagery has been seen by "nobody except us, and we've been quite careful not to look at anything too much," Westphal said.

So practice your skills with this 12-part tutorial, and prepare to begin the great stardust hunt.