15 years ago, the Stardust robotic spacecraft was launched. It’s mission? To fly by a comet and collect samples from Comet Wild 2 and get them back to Earth via parachute. In 2006, the Stardust Capsule Return made it’s way back to Earth. Since then, researchers have been analyzing what was returned back to our planet.

Late yesterday, scientists said they have what is likely the first seven specks of star dust from exploding stars and other phenomena. The star dust was described in this week’s edition of the journal, Science. Scientists were surprised by the diversity in shape, size and content of the dust. This points to a complex diverse evolution than first thought according to lead author Andrew Westphal.

Two of the specks appear larger than the others and look fluffy. Larger is relative though, as the specs are just 4 microns across. That’s about 1/16,000th of an inch.

How did scientists even find the specks of star dust? More than 30,000 volunteers poured over digitized images of Stardust’s translucent aerogel collectors. With the specks so tiny, enlisting the help of volunteers was a must for the research team. These volunteers, who describe themselves as ‘dusters’, have done more than 100 million searches.

The searches will continue until researchers are sure there is not anymore dust lurking in Stardust’s aerogel collectors. Right now, only 77 of the 132 aerogel titles have been scanned. That leaves the potential for several more specks of star dust to be discovered.

Scientists plan to give more details on the tiny pieces of star dust in the future. But, they are waiting for more sophisticated equipment to help nail down what the samples are made of. NASA’s Michael Zolensky says the dust may even contain organics according to Reuters.

The star dust discovery is still in its infant stages. Researchers will eventually measure the levels of different chemicals in the specks. But, the processes for doing that will need to be perfected before any attempt is made. They have just seven specks right now, they can’t afford any mistakes. What we need is another mission to gather hundreds of specks.

Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM


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