Wanted People with Time on their Hands

06 August 2006


The brains of bored volunteers could be the key to unlocking the secrets of distant star systems. Scientists working on the Stardust Mission, which returned from the tail of comet Wild 2 in January, are currently analysing dust particles that could reveal the chemical composition of the early solar system. But amongst the primordial dust hide an estimated 50 particles of interstellar dust from other stars. To find these elusive hitch-hikers, Andrew Westphal from UC Berkeley has enlisted the help of 115 000 volunteers trained in the art of recognising ordinary dust particles. If a particle doesn't fit the mould, the volunteers alert Westphal to take a closer look. What's more the volunteers can browse the universe from the comfort of their front rooms as they can download over 700 000 images of the particles from the internet. But why not get a computer to do it? Unfortunately no-one knows what an interstellar dust particle looks like, and so the search can't rely on computer muscle. Westphal hopes that a little competitive spirit should keep the volunteers looking and eventually find him the proverbial needle in a haystack.


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