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Catching Stardust

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How 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?


Areas of Science
Time Required
Very Short (≤ 1 day)
Material Availability
Readily available
Very Low (under $20)
No issues

Sara Agee, Ph.D., Science Buddies


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.


Photo of a comet with the coma, dust tail and ion tail labeled

Figure 1. 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).

Section of a particle collection panel from a satellite with a grid pattern

Figure 2a.

Many comet particles embedded in a piece of aerogel

Figure 2b.

A comet particle embedded in a piece of aerogel

Figure 2c.
Figure 2. Scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory devised a way to trap particles from the comet using a specially designed panel containing aerogel (2a). The aerogel material captures particles inside the gel (2b) so they can be later cut out of the gel and studied (2c) (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!



  • 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. Retrieved September 6, 2007.
  • This website will tell you all about comets:
    NASA Science Solar System Exploration (n.d.). Comets, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  • 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). Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  • 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). Retrieved 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. Retrieved September 6, 2007.

Materials and Equipment

Experimental Procedure

  1. First, you will need to build your satellites, one for each distance you will test. In this procedure I describe using three satellites, but you can build more. This procedure describes a simple design for a mini satellite you can build using a milk carton
  2. Cut one side of the milk carton box off using scissors. Cut the piece of milk carton into three rectangles of the same size:

    A side wall of a large milk carton is cut horizontally into three even pieces

    Figure 3. Pieces of milk carton can be used to build a satellite.

  3. Cut a slit in each rectangle, halfway down the center of the rectangle. Draw a circle on each "wing" on the white side of the rectangle using the permanent marker and a penny as your guide. You should end up with 2 equal-sized circles on each rectangle:

    The shape of a penny is traced on the left and right side of a cardboard rectangle

    Figure 4. Equal-sized circles will help measure stardust.

  4. Assemble the two pieces into a mini-satellite. Tie a string around the center of the satellite for hanging.

    Two rectangles of thin cardboard are cut half way through the center width-wise and fit together

    Figure 5. Assembled mini satellite.

  5. Repeat steps 2-4 to make three (or more) total satellites.
  6. Prepare your satellite mounting device (a clothes hanger) for your volunteer to hold for you. Hang each of your satellites from a clothes hanger at different lengths using the attached strings. One satellite should be on a short string (about 10 cm), the next on a medium sized string (about 50 centimeters), and the last on a long string (about 100 cm or 1 meter). If you are using more than three satellites, just change your measurements accordingly.
  7. Next, you will need to set up your crater impact simulation. This experiment is very dusty and messy, so you will need to set up your simulation outdoors. Also, you will need to bring your volunteer to help you hold your satellites during the "meteor" impact. Your back yard would be a good place to set up your simulation site.
  8. Place a tray or shallow box on the ground at your test site.
  9. Fill the shallow tray or box with ash from your fireplace or grill. If you do not have any, you can substitute any light, dusty powder in place of the ash like: chalk, talcum powder, etc. Allow all of the ash to settle and do not disturb the ash until you are ready for your experiment.
  10. Smear a layer of petroleum jelly (Vaseline) on each circle of your satellite. The jelly will collect particles by sticking to them. You should have four jelly-smeared collection circles on each satellite. NOTE: It is very important to protect your satellites after this step, so that you do not accidentally contaminate the jelly-smeared circles with debris. Try and keep them clean until you do the simulation!
  11. Have your volunteer put on a face mask and hold the satellite hanger above, but not touching, the surface of the ash. Explain to your volunteer what you will do in the next step (so they won't freak out) and tell them to hold very still.

    A child holds a clothes hanger with three homemade stardust catchers hanging from it

    Figure 6. Mini satellites hang at different heights above the surface.

  12. After a countdown, throw a "meteor" (a hard object such as a baseball) into the pile of ash, causing a "crater impact" and sending up a cloud of "stardust" around the impact crater.
  13. After the dust settles you can tell your volunteer to give you the satellite hanger, and be sure to thank them for doing such a great job.
  14. Using a digital camera, photograph each collection circle (4 total) for each satellite using the digital micro setting on your camera. Here is an example of the three photos I took for my experiment:

    Close up photo of a piece of string in a black circle

    (10 cm string)

    A black circle drawn on paper

    (50 cm string)

    A black circle drawn on paper

    (100 cm string)

    Figure 7. Examples of my collection circles at varying distances from a mini satellite: farthest from the impact on the shortest string (10 cm), at a medium distance from the impact on a medium length string (50 cm), and nearest the impact on a long string (100 cm).

  15. Once you take your pictures, you can repeat the experiment and collect more data by wiping off the petroleum jelly COMPLETELY and starting again at step 10.
  16. Now you can analyze the data. Open each photo in a digital photo editor, like iPhoto or Adobe Photoshop. Count the total number of particles in each circle, and write the data in a table:
    Satellite Orbit Distance (cm) Number of Particles Counted in Each Circle Average Number of Particles Collected
    Circle #1 Circle #2 Circle #3 Circle #4
    10 cm          
    50 cm          
    100 cm          
  17. Calculate the average number of particles for each satellite orbit distance by adding together all of your data (in this case, circles 1-4) and dividing by the number of data points (4). Write your answer in the final column of the data table.
  18. Make a bar graph of your data. Make a scale for the "Average Number of Particles Collected" on the left side of the graph (y-axis). Draw one bar for each satellite orbit distance you tested, and label each bar on the bottom (x-axis) of the graph.
  19. What do your results mean? Does the average number of particles collected increase or decrease with orbit distance? What conclusion can you make about this?
icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Do you have specific questions about your science project? Our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.


  • Try testing different satellite designs for collecting debris. Can you design a better system? Try changing the panel design in different ways: add more panels, change the size or shape of the panels, change the orientation angle of panels. Test each design and show which design is the best.
  • In this experiment, you used ash as a source of material. What about other materials? Try comparing different source materials with different consistencies (ash, sand, powder, etc.) to see how much debris they scatter after impact. Can you use your satellite test to measure the results of this simulation?


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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Catching Stardust." Science Buddies, 30 Dec. 2021, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Astro_p023/astronomy/catching-stardust?from=Blog. Accessed 24 Sep. 2023.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2021, December 30). Catching Stardust. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Astro_p023/astronomy/catching-stardust?from=Blog

Last edit date: 2021-12-30
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