Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

WU scientists to analyze NASA comet dust

KRT Campus

Washington University researchers will be among the first to see stardust taken directly from a comet as part of NASA’s Stardust mission.

The unmanned probe returned to Earth Jan. 15 after a successful rendezvous with Comet Wild 2 (pronounced “Vild Two”). During the encounter, the Stardust probe collected samples of interstellar dust from the comet’s tail.

Frank Stadermann, who witnessed the opening of the capsule at the Johnson Space Center, leads the group of University researchers on this project.

“This is the first time since Apollo 17 that NASA has brought any samples back from any extraterrestrial body from our solar system,” said Stadermann. “This is the first time since 1972 that we can take some samples from an extraterrestrial body.”

The source of the particles is particularly special.

“Since it’s from a comet it’s very interesting, as it is some of the most primitive material in our solar system,” said Stadermann.

Stadermann will be utilizing the NanoSIMS instrument, a device on the cutting edge of research technology, to delve deep into the particles.

“Basically, we have a special resolution that is much higher and can analyze much more about the particle. We can actually find grains older than the comet and the solar system,” said Stadermann. “Our instrument will be find small subcomponents that are actually stardust in the truest meaning of the word.”

Though no students will be taking part in this aspect of research, Stadermann noted that they are working closely with graduate students to interpret the data they collect from the stardust.

Two other groups from the University will also be receiving stardust from the mission. The first, headed by Dr. Alex Meshik and Professor Charles Hohenberg of the physics department, will study noble gases of the particles in hopes of seeing to what extent comets have contributed to the noble gasses of the Earth. Meshik and Hohenberg expect to receive their sample in the coming year.

“What we’re doing presently, we are getting data from a sister mission for the Stardust mission called Genesis. For Genesis, we are making measurements now,” said Meshik.

The final researcher from the University to be receiving samples is Brigitte Wopenka, a senior researcher in the earth and planetary sciences department.

“The University has a long history of analyzing stardust,” said Wopenka. “I analyzed, more than 20 years ago, stardust samples. Many years ago stardust was collected by U-2 airplanes in the solar system, taken to NASA, and sent to Wash. U. to analyze these particles. I was one of those people.”

Wopenka will be working to determine the mineralogical composition of the stardust. Her extensive expertise led to her being chosen as one of the preliminary researchers.

“I do that involvement with stardust because I was personally asked because of my 20 years of experience,” said Wopenka.

A total of 50 researchers will receive samples from the mission as a preliminary examination team.

“Our department is one of the top departments when it comes to planetary sciences,” said Wopenka. “As a matter of fact, most of this research is related not to the earth, but to other planets. That’s the main thing which this department is focused on. And so NASA is obviously a big player and has supported many of my colleagues for many, many years.”

The recent Stardust mission comes at a time when unmanned missions to space may be coming to an end. The Bush administration has been arguing for more manned missions to space in lieu of work like the Stardust mission. As a result, much of the funding for such missions will most likely shift to manned work.

“My major issue is that there would be more funding altogether,” said Wopenka. “There’s not enough funding as it is, manned or un-manned.”

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