Astronomy Science projects
AbstractHow do astronomers collect stardust? They design and build satellites that are launched into space to collect particles on specially designed panels. Satellites can be sent to orbit around an object of interest: a planet, moon, or comet. In this experiment, you can build your own mini satellite and use it to collect some pretend stellar debris. If you simulate an asteroid impact, how much stellar dust will your satellite collect? Will placing your satellite at different "orbital" distances from the impact change the amount of debris collected?
In this experiment you will build your own mini satellites and use them to test if the number of particles collected during a satellite mission is related to the orbit distance from the satellite to the object being observed.
Sara Agee, Ph.D., Science Buddies
Science Buddies Staff. "Catching Stardust" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 2 Sep. 2014. Web. 3 Apr. 2017
Science Buddies Staff. (2014, September 2). Retrieved April 3, 2017 from
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Here is an image of Halley's Comet showing the coma and tail structure (Yeomans, 2005).
In 2006, scientists at NASA got a very special delivery all the way from outer space. It was a package of space particles captured by the StarDust Mission, a satellite that had been sent into space 7 years earlier. StarDust's mission was to fly through the coma of the comet Wild 2 to capture some stardust, and then to send the capsule back home to earth where it could be studied by a team of scientists. The coma of a comet is near the nucleus and has a high density of dust, gas, and particles.
When the capsule landed in the desert of Utah in 2006, scientists were relieved to see the tiny space particles unharmed and ready to be studied. By studying the captured particles from the StarDust Mission, scientists will have seen some of the oldest particles in the universe (NASA JPL, 2007).
How did the satellite capture the particles? This satellite was designed with a special collection panel containing a special gel called "aerogel" that could trap the particles as they bombarded the panel (Figure 1a). The trace of each single particle could be seen in the aerogel where it hit the collection panel (Figure 1b). Then, each single particle could be cut out of the gel as a triangular slice and examined to find out what type of matter the particle was made of (Figure 1b).
Scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory devised a way to trap particles from the comet using a specially designed panel containing aerogel (1a). The aerogel material captures particles inside the gel (1b) so they can be later cut out of the gel and studied (1c) (Images from NASA JPL, 2007).
In this experiment, you will build your own mini satellite and use it to collect some pretend stellar debris. You will make your satellites out of a milk carton and use petroleum jelly to capture particles. Then you will use different lengths of string to hang your satellites at different distance from the ground, simulating different orbital distances. If you simulate an asteroid impact, how much stellar dust will your satellites collect? Will placing your satellite at different "orbital" distances from the impact change the amount of debris collected?
Terms and Concepts
To do this type of experiment you should know what the following terms mean. Have an adult help you search the Internet, or take you to your local library to find out more!
- How can a satellite be designed to collect particles from space?
- How can a satellite be used to study astronomical phenomenon, like a meteor impact or a passing comet?
- Does the distance of a satellite to an astronomical object affect the number of particles collected?
- Read all about NASA's Stardust Mission to collect particles from the tail of a passing comet:
NASA JPL, 2007. "Stardust - NASA's Comet Sample Return Mission, " National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. [accessed September 6, 2007]
- This article will explain what a comet looks like and what a comet is made of:
Yeomans, D.K., 2005 "Comet, " WorldBook@NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration [accessed September 6, 2007]
- In your experiment, you will use petroleum jelly to capture particles and dust on your satellite. This article will explain how NASA scientists used a substance called "aerogel" to trap and capture particles during the Stardust mission:
Science@NASA, 1999. "Aerogel Rides Again, " Space Science News, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) [accessed September 6, 2007]
- Starchild is a great web site that explains the basics of astronomy and astrophysics for kids developed by scientists at NASA:
NASA GSFC, 2007. "Starchild: A Learning Center for Young Astronomers, " National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). [accessed September 6, 2007]
- This article is about a star called Zeta Leporis that is surrounded by rocks and dust. Maybe it even has planets! Read why it has scientist so excited:
SNK, 2007. "Snapshot: A Star's Belt of Dust and Rocks, " Science News for Kids. [accessed September 6, 2007]
News Feed on This TopicNote: A computerized matching algorithm suggests the above articles. It's not as smart as you are, and it may occasionally give humorous, ridiculous, or even annoying results! Learn more about the News Feed
Materials and Equipment
- 1/2 gallon milk carton
- Vaseline (or other petroleum jelly product)
- Face mask (like the kind used when painting a room)
- Permanent marker
- Clothes hanger
- Meter stick
- Ashes (from a fireplace or grill)
- Large pan (or flat box)