West Ranch High School astronomy students are planning to become the first high school to collect cosmic dust during Friday’s meteor shower, school officials announced.
Students are launching a high altitude weather balloon that will travel approximately 100,000 feet and collect the dust, a feat that’s never been attempted before, according to a statement by astronomy student Dillon Lombardo.
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“Cosmic dust is basically very fine micrometer particles that accumulate at the edge of the atmosphere,” said Christine Hirst, earth science and astronomy teacher at West Ranch, as well as the project’s facilitator. “It’s been accumulating at the edge of the atmosphere for 4.5 billion years, and the only way to collect it is to go there.”
The main objective of the experiment is to collect dust left from comets using a device the student’s designed with aerogel and silicon oil, which would open and close above the majority of the atmosphere, according to the statement.
“They had to design an entire collection unit that can open and close at altitude,” Hirst said. “This group wanted to do something very different and very revolutionary, and it’s never been done– not by NASA, not by grad students. And these are high schoolers that are doing it.”
While NASA currently has planes that fly up to 65,000 feet for the purposes of cosmic dust collection, the students intend to reach new heights at 100,000 feet.
A core group of six students from Hirst’s astronomy class have been working on the project, but Hirst has enlisted the help of approximately 100 students to be involved in various aspects of the launch.
California State University, Northridge has expressed their interest in contributing to the project, and has agreed to allow the students to open their device at a “clean room” at the university, which is designed to maintain an atmosphere almost 100 percent free of contaminants, Hirst said.
“Assuming all of our devices work properly, it will go right through the cosmic dust field twice– on the way up and on the way down,” she said. “Assuming everything works and it opens and closes when it’s supposed to, they should be successful.”
The target launch is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday at the West Ranch outdoor amphitheater. Students plan to present their findings to the scientific community at a mock conference scheduled for May 28.
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