When NASA scientists wanted to study star dust (particles from comets and interstellar dust), they had to find a way to slow down the tiny pieces of matter as they flew through space. By the way, interstellar means “between stars.” NASA’s Stardust spacecraft would encounter star dust traveling 6 times the speed of a rifle bullet! At these speeds, a collision with most materials would shatter, or burn up the space dust they were trying to collect.
In order to solve this problem, the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California crafted a special “space jello” called Aerogel which could slow space particle down and trap them, undamaged, for study. Aerogel is similar to glass, but is 1000 times less dense. In fact Aerogel is 99.8 percent empty space. Imagine a box of air filled with tiny, tiny glass threads. When space dust hits this jello-like substance, it makes a tiny tunnel in the aerogel that helps scientists find and collect the dust under a powerful microscope. Then they can study the dust to see what it is made of!
I was luckily enough to get a sample of Aerogel from Stephanie Smith, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Aerogel looks like light-blue smoke when you hold it in your hand. It is as light as a feather, but it feels solid, dry, and harder than jello when you touch it! You can read more about Aerogel and the Stardust missions by clicking here, on the JPL website! It’s amazing science. They’ve found many interesting elements and chemical compounds in the star dust already. I can’t wait to see what they find next!
Here’s a video of us playing with the Aerogel Stephanie brought to the NASATweetup! (courtesy of MindspaceLTD)