To capture and analyze these microscopic messengers from deep space, NASA has developed a specialized dust detector for its upcoming Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission called the Interstellar Dust Experiment (IDEX).
Engineered by a team at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), this 47-pound instrument will soon embark on a journey to trap streaks of stardust and decode messages from the cosmic past.
The Challenge of Capturing Interstellar Dust
Although full of potential clues, collecting interstellar dust poses significant difficulties. The particles are incredibly sparse, encountering only a few hundred specks across IDEX’s operational lifetime. Additionally, some zip past at speeds over 100,000 mph.
To overcome these hurdles, the instrument features a 20-inch-wide aperture to sweep up as many rare particles as possible.
IDEX also contains specialized detection technology enabling analysis of both fast large dust grains and slower compact ones.
What Interstellar Dust Can Tell Us
Each nanoscale interstellar dust particle offers insights into the explosive supernova births and compositions of space beyond our solar neighbourhood.
Specifically, they provide glimpses into the original elements like silicon and carbon that aggregated over 4 billion years ago to form the essential building blocks of our planetary system. By cataloguing the velocity, origins, and makeup of these flecks of stardust, IDEX should be able to help us contextualize our cosmic environment.
How will IDEX operate
The launch of the IMAP observatory containing IDEX is scheduled for Spring 2025. The spacecraft will journey approximately 1 million miles from Earth to a gravitationally stable point ideal for space exploration called Lagrange Point 1. IDEX will open its aperture and instantaneously vaporize incoming dust grains into identifiably charged clouds at this position along the route between Earth and the Sun.
By tallying the electrical signals, scientists can classify essential traits like density and magnetism to trace back star systems or nebulae of origin.
- NASA sending IDEX dust collector to space in 2025 aboard IMAP spacecraft
- Goal is trapping interstellar dust to learn about cosmic origins
- Specks give clues about supernovae, early solar system composition
- Device designed to catch particles moving 100,000+ mph
- CU Boulder students crucial in instrument testing and design
- Space voyage to unlock mysteries encoded in bits of ancient stardust