College professors help NASA ‘Stardust’ project
By Samantha Ackah, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Two Dartmouth professors will soon have the honor of participating in NASA's ground-breaking $168.4 million Stardust project to analyze interstellar dust particles collected from the Wild 2 comet.
Susan Taylor, professor of Earth Sciences and scientist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory facility, will work with Charles Daghlian, director of Dartmouth's Electron Microscope Facility to examine the particles gathered from the comet.
The Stardust project began with the 1999 launch of the Delta II spacecraft, which made two solar orbits and flew past the comet's nucleus. During its seven-year journey, the spacecraft collected tiny particles of dust in a substance known as aerogel. Upon landing in Jan. 2005, NASA scientists collected these samples, which have since been distributed to a number of laboratories around the world.
Taylor expects her samples to arrive within the next few months and said she looks forward to working on the particles.
"I've seen it from afar develop and seen the whole cycle so it'll be a thrill and an honor to be able to take a look at these things," Taylor said.
Dartmouth is one of 160 laboratories participating in the study and Daghlian said the College's inclusion in the project was a testament to its capabilities.
"The Stardust project is a NASA project and our participation in it is very tiny but we think important," he said. "Just this past year Susan [Taylor] was at a meeting and talking to various people to line up a group of labs that can participate in the preliminary examination; there was no one else in attendance that had the capabilities we do."
Taylor explained that the project might provide insight into the history and formation of the universe.
"We know very little about comets; we're just starting to find out. They're sort of these icy particles that form way outside of the sun," she said. "Since they have ice they might have been important for putting water and other things that are important to life on our planet."
The particles also interest Taylor, who has spent years analyzing micrometeorites from many environments including the South Pole, because they offer the unique opportunity to study particles collected directly from space without alteration.
According to NASA, the particles collected "will provide fundamental insight into the materials, processes and environments that existed during the origin and early evolution of the solar system."
Emily Koepsell '09 will also participate in the research. As an intern for the Women in Science Project, she has worked alongside Taylor and Daghlian since late fall term.
"I feel so privileged especially as an undergraduate to be one of such a limited number of people who will work with the comet dust, particles that have never before been collected or studied," she said. "It is really exciting to be part of such a cutting-edge and unique project."
WISP pairs freshmen women with professors in the science and engineering disciplines to encourage female involvement in those fields. Both Daghlian and Taylor have been involved in the WISP program for over a decade.