Contact: Jochen Kissel
Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics

The first in-situ chemical analysis of interstellar dust particles produces a puzzling result: These cosmic particles consist
mostly of 3-dimensionally cross-linked organic macro-molecules, so-called polymeric-heterocyclic-aromates. “They
rather resemble tar-like substances than minerals” say Dr. Franz R. Krueger (contractor) and Dr.Jochen Kissel,
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik (for extraterrestrial Physics), Garching near Munich, Germany, in the
latest issue of ‘Sterne und Weltraum’ a monthly, German language Astronomy magazine in Heidelberg, Germany.

So far, 5 interstellar dust particles (dust between the stars) have hit the Garching built dust impact mass spectrometer
CIDA (Cometary and Interstellar Dust Analyzer) onboard the NASA spacecraft STARDUST. Launched on Feb 7th
1999 STARDUST will visit comet Wild-2 (pronounce Vild-2) in 2004.

To reach the comet, STARDUST has to perform three orbits about the sun. At the close fly-by (miss-distance 500
km/300 miles) another instrument will collect cometary dust and return it, well packed, to earth in January of 2006. During
its 7 year mission, STARDUST will face the stream of interstellar dust several times. This dust is part of the local
environment in the Milky Way which the solar system currently passes through at high speed. It has recently be seen by
dust instruments of the Heidelberg based Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik (for Nuclear Physics) on both NASA’s
Galileo and ESA’s Ulysses spacecrafts. The first measuring campaign for CIDA from February through December 1999
has produced the new results.

During this time STARDUST was at a distance of about 240 million Kilometers (150 Million miles) from the earth when
the first impact occurred. Just before the campaign the spacecraft pointed the instrument into the direction of the
interstellar dust, so that it would not measure the more frequent interplanetary dust particles, which are parts of our solar

At an impact speed of about 30 kilometers/second (18 miles/second) these interstellar dust particles are vaporized
immediately and broken up into molecular fragments. A fraction of those carries a positive or negative electronic charge.
By its electric field in front of the target CIDA pulls the positive ions into the instrument to the detector. Depending on
their mass it takes the ions different times to travel the 1.5 meters (5 feet) distance (heavier ions travel longer). This way
they are detected mass after mass with in some 200 millionth of a second, and a mass spectrum is generated.

“It is the size of these molecular fragments with nuclear masses of up to 2000 (water e.g. has 18 such units) which
surprised us as much as the seemingly absence of any mineral constituents”, explains Dr. Kissel of the Garching based
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik. “Only organic molecules can reach those sizes”. The largest molecules
found in space so far are the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) which reach masses of a few hundred mass units.

The details of the mass spectra measured with CIDA show that the molecules of the interstellar dust must have about 10%
of Nitrogen and/or Oxygen in addition to hydrogen and Carbon. This means that these cannot be pure PAHs, which are
planar, but are especially due to the nitrogen extend into all three spacial directions.

Such three dimensional molecules can form links to their neighbours and reach a thermal stability necessary to survive the
trip into the inner solar system with 300 to 350 Kelvin (70 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit). “The organic material analyzed
with CIDA in the interstellar dust particles is another type of reactive molecules which we found in the dust of comet
Halley 14 years ago” says Dr. Kissel. “When they got in contact with liquid water on the young earth, they could have
triggered the type of chemical reactions which are a prerequisite for the origin of life.”


For further information you may contact:

Dr. Jochen Kissel,
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik,
D-85740 Garching
phone: 49-89-32-99-38-17
fax: 49-89-32-99-35 69

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