The University of Arizona

Rapid extraction of dust impact tracks from silica aerogel by ultrasonic microblades

H. A. Ishii, G. A. Graham, A. T. Kearsley, P. G. Grant, C. J. Snead, J. P. Bradley


In January 2006, NASA's Stardust mission will return with its valuable cargo of the first cometary dust particles captured at hypervelocity speeds in silica aerogel collectors and brought back to Earth. Aerogel, a proven capture medium, is also a candidate for future sample return missions and low-Earth orbit (LEO) deployments. Critical to the science return of Stardust as well as future missions that will use aerogel is the ability to efficiently extract impacted particles from collector tiles. Researchers will be eager to obtain Stardust samples as quickly as possible; tools for the rapid extraction of particle impact tracks that require little construction, training, or investment would be an attractive asset. To this end, we have experimented with diamond and steel microblades. Applying ultrasonic frequency oscillations to these microblades via a piezo-driven holder produces rapid, clean cuts in the aerogel with minimal damage to the surrounding collector tile. With this approach, intact impact tracks and associated particles in aerogel fragments with low-roughness cut surfaces have been extracted from aerogel tiles flown on NASA's Orbital Debris Collector (ODC) experiment. The smooth surfaces produced during cutting reduce imaging artifacts during analysis by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Some tracks have been dissected to expose the main cavity for eventual isolation of individual impact debris particles and further analysis using techniques such as transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and nano-secondary ion mass spectrometry (nanoSIMS).


trace elements;chemical composition of comets;cometary dust;Stardust mission

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