When Stardust Launched NASA Had No Way to Extract Particles from Aerogel
Amusing story on Popsci.com–when NASA launched its Stardust probe, the satellite that followed comet Wild-2 (say “Vilt-Too”) and captured its comet dust with a “catcher’s mitt” made of aerogel, they had no way to extract the comet particles from the aerogel. Silica aerogels like the ones used on the Stardust probe are extremely brittle and machining it using normal techniques causes it to fracture unpredictably. I can corroborate this–at one point before Stardust returned, NASA reached out to me personally (as they did many aerogel researchers) to ask if I had any experience cutting aerogels! All’s well that ends well–the ingenious team at NASA developed a method using a high-frequency vibrating microscopic needle to extract the comet particles from the aerogel in time to make use of the samples that were returned, making Stardust one of the most successful sample return missions of all time.
We had the chance to sit down for a podcast several years ago with the mission’s PI, NASA JPL’s Dr. Peter Tsou. Listen to the amazing story of Stardust here.