18 January 2017 | 3 °C

Imperial Star(dust) Destroyers

By M@ Last edited 131 months ago
Imperial Star(dust) Destroyers
Dont try this at home.jpg

It Came From Outer-space…

…And landed in a London laboratory last week.

Workers at Imperial College’s Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering have got their fingers on a few grains of a very precious dust. The tiny crumbs come from comet Wild-2 and were collected by Nasa’s barnstorming Stardust probe.

Sometimes we moan about the travails of commuting into work from a few miles out of London. But consider this for a journey into the capital.

4.5 billion years ago, give or take a month, comet Wild-2 formed from the dust and debris of the early solar system. (Or some god or other put it there for who knows what purpose, if you prefer magical explanations.) 4.49999999 billion years later (OK, in 2004), a small spacecraft intercepted that icy ball of rock and collected a few souvenir particles by flying through the comet’s wake. Imagine a fly/windscreen scenario, only with both parties travelling at six times the speed of a bullet.

The probe finally flew by its home planet again a month ago, after a highly successful seven-year, 3 billion mile journey. As it passed, Stardust released its collection chamber, which later re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere faster than any previous man-made object. After a successful landing, its contents were distributed to 150 scientists around the world, including the Imperial researchers, and a team from the Natural History Museum.

Dr Matt Genge, an expert of extraterrestrial dust (imagine the looks he must get when making smalltalk with strangers) added some context:

Not since the Apollo days have we had the opportunity to look at material brought back from space. These few thousands of a gram of dust may tell us more about comets than the last 100 years of telescope observations.

The scientists will now examine the particles to learn more about the make-up of the early solar system, which Wild-2 is said to represent.

Last Updated 13 February 2006