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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Zigging Stardust

Zigging Stardust

Author: Reilly Capps/Thursday, January 14, 2016/Categories: space science

[A technician from the Student Dust Counter team kneels in front of the New Horizons spacecraft. Photo from CU Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.]

You usually think of dust as nothing more than a nuisance, something that makes your TV screen look fuzzy. Astronomers looking at the universe used to think the same about space dust -- it just got in the way when they were trying to see all those pretty stars. But they slowly came to realize that dust is an important part of the universe. Its gravity affects the formation of stars and solar systems. Without dust, Earth might not be quite the way it is.  

NASA has long been looking at the dust in our solar system and just outside it. Now they're taking that a step further. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto and provided some amazing views. We wrote about New Horizons a lot, including its hi-res photos, its infrared photos, its ice volcanoes, its icy landscapes and its halo. But New Horizons' work isn't done. The Student Dust Counter is detecting the dust that hits the spacecraft as it flies into the Kuiper belt, that unexplored territory of chunks of ice and dust that lies outside the solar system. It's gone farther out into space than any other dust collector -- and apparently there have been a lot of dust collectors. And it was done by students at CU-Boulder. Not a bad entry into the science fair, huh? Nerds can watch the dust collecting as it happens here.

The Earth and the other planets formed from a disk of gas and dust. By looking at the remaining dust, scientists get an idea of what that disk might have looked like. They can also make guesses about what the gas disks around other stars might look like, so that when we point our telescopes at those systems, we can see if their solar systems might be similar to ours, or else radically different. Which might lead to the discovery of aliens -- if we haven't already discovered them

Why does any of this matter? Who cares about space? Well, from the time we are children, we want to know where each individual comes from: storks or stomachs? Later, we want to know: where did all of humanity came from? Every story our cultures have told -- from the stories of clay and stolen ribs to lotus flowers -- turned out to be wrong. But, by ignoring those stories and paying close attention to the world as it really is, we can begin to fit ourselves into the great story of the cosmos, and see ours lives as part of something bigger than ourselves.  

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