After eight years of analysis, researchers taking a particular close look at dust from NASA's Stardust spacecraft have identified seven rare microscopic dust particles that are likely the first examples of contemporary interstellar dust ever seen.
Michael Zolensky, curator of the Stardust laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, has been combing through the Stardust's aerogel and aluminum foil dust collectors since the spacecraft returned to Earth in 2006.
"These are the most challenging objects we will ever have in the lab for study, and it is a triumph that we have made as much progress in their analysis as we have," he said in a recent statement.
So just why are Zolensky and an entire staff of other brilliant minds spending their time squinting at bits of dust?
Experts and enthusiasts of space have long been fascinated with the interstellar - the region of space just outside our own solar system. While the Sun and its orbiting planets have been extensively studied compared to the rest of the Milky Way Galaxy, very little is known about the world just outside our Sun's influence.
In fact, we know so little, that it remains in dispute if the Voyager 1 spacecraft has REALLY just slipped into interstellar space.
Zolensky and his colleagues believe that these newly identified bits of interstellar dust can tell us a whole lot more about the great beyond.
According to a study recently published in Science that details these findings, three of these potentially interstellar dust particles are already raising new questions. The particles, collected in aluminum pockets on the spacecraft, appear to have traces of sulfur compounds, which some astronomers have argued do not occur in interstellar dust.
A preliminary examination team plans to continue analysis of the remaining 95 percent of the foils to possibly find enough particles to understand the variety and origins of the interstellar dust.
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