On January 16, 2006 a return capsule from the Stardust spacecraft entered the earth's atmosphere and landed near the Dugway Proving Ground in the Western desert of Utah. The capsule carried particles of interstellar dust and dust from the comet Wild 2, trapped in an exotic substance called Aerogel.
Patrick Wiggins is a NASA ambassador for Utah. He says the problem is that it's difficult to find dust particles in the Aerogel. For this reason NASA took a unique approach, asking citizens to help.
"They haven't come up with a computer program that can realistically, and reliably identify all of these particles," says Wiggins. "So what they have done is gone through and scanned all of these things into computer images and then they're looking for citizen scientists to go on line and use the scans to make the discoveries, and a number of them have been made that way."
Stardust is one example of the many types of projects that use regular people, to collect data, monitor wildlife, and make new discoveries. Citizen science has become more popular in the last few years, but as Wiggins says, astronomy is a science that was literally started by people just looking at the sky. He says this approach is still successful today. "It's one of the sciences where civilians, if you will, really can make their mark, on astronomy."
Dan Cimbora got involved in astronomy when he was ten years old because his parents bought him a telescope. By thirteen he was making the optics for his own telescope. More recently he built a larger one that allows him to see much fainter and more distant structures like nebula and galaxies.
"I mean I really get a kick out of going out to remote observing locations and tracking down really faint things that are tough to see with a given telescope," says Cimbora. "The satisfaction of finding something that is really elusive is pretty intense."
Larry Holmes is a board member with the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. He says people who take up astronomy as a hobby are actually explorers. "A telescope is basically a time machine. The bigger the lens the further back in time you can look. And the large telescopes, that are being built today and in the future, will get back to very close to the time of the big bang."
The reason some astronomers measure distances in light years is because it takes time for light to travel in space. The farther away an object is, the longer it takes for its light to reach us. So what we see in a telescope is actually something that happened in the past. Holmes says they have a telescope in their Stansbury Park Observatory complex that has a 32-inch diameter mirror. He says this telescope, called the Grim Scope after its designer Bruce Grim, can see millions or even billions of years in the past.
"You're looking at light that left the galaxy or nebula or whatever body before dinosaurs walked on the earth," says Holmes.
Or even before the earth was formed... If you are seeking this type of adventure, you don't have to go out and purchase an expensive telescope. Instead anyone can go to the observatory says Wiggins.
"We try to open the observatory to the public two nights a month during the observing season. Now of course, people that join the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, you get a key, once you've had the class. And you can go out and use any nights you want."
The observing season is over for this year, and won't start again until sometime in May. But that doesn't mean you can't do astronomy in the winter. In fact, there are multiple projects you can participate in while at home: from categorizing new galaxies, to letting your computer search for signs of intelligent life when you aren't using it. For more information find the links on our website.
As for Stardust, they have made a number of discoveries. These include the finding that glycine, one of the twenty amino acid required to make all of the proteins in our bodies, was found in the dust of the comet Wild 2. This could be one way such molecules originally came to earth, seeding the planet with the building blocks of life. Phase five of the Stardust@home study began earlier this year, so if you hurry, you might even get the chance to name a dust particle, if you find one.
NOTE: Last week, NASA announced that two amateur astronomers found a planet orbiting two suns, with an additional two suns nearby. This is the first four sun planetary system ever identified. It was a collaborative effort with planetary scientists looking at data from the Kepler spacecraft. Read more here.