PRECIOUS DUST

18-01-2006

A visitor with a lot of history will arrive at the ESRF next spring. Comet dust brought back to Earth by the NASA Stardust capsule will be 'landing' at the synchrotron source in order to be chemically deciphered. The dust dates from the time when the solar system was first forming, so its analysis may provide an insight into the origins of planets, including Earth, and even life itself.

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Samples from the Stardust mission will be analysed at the ESRF


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Stardust coming back to Earth (Photo credit: NASA).

Stardust is the first ever mission in which samples of a comet's dust have been brought back to Earth. The probe landed successfully on the 15th January in the United States after a 4.6-billion-kilometre round trip to the comet Wild 2, which took seven years to complete.

After such a long journey to retrieve comet dust samples, only a few researchers worldwide will be given some of the grains. Amongst them there are scientists from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (France), the Institut d’astrophysique spatiale in Orsay (France), University of Frankfurt (Germany), the University of Gent (Belgium), and the ESRF, who already performed preliminary tests last year on other extraterrestrial grains under similar conditions. The micrometre-sized samples they studied were trapped in pieces of aerogel, in the same way that the Stardust samples will be delivered.

After the success of the last analysis, NASA has given the green light to provide the ESRF with the dust. It will be studied using the techniques of microspectroscopy and microdiffraction, which have proven to be very efficient for this kind of analysis. The experiments are scheduled for March and April on ID13, ID22 and ID21 beamlines.