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On my way to Pluto


I'm on my way to Pluto. or at least, my name is. The NASA space probe New Horizons, launched yesterday, carries a disc with the names of all subscribers of the NH ecard site which I mentioned some months ago. The $700m probe will gather information on Pluto and its moons before - it is hoped - pressing on to explore other objects in the outer Solar System. Pluto is the only remaining planet that has never been visited by a spacecraft.

At the same time, researchers are opening the Stardust probe, which collected dust particles on the Wild2 comet. A very important part of the study of cometary grains is the study of organics. We know comets contain abundant organics and abundant water. We're not sure what kinds of organics are in there. But we think that most of the Earth's water and organics - most of the molecules in our bodies - came from comets.

Members of the public are being asked to sift through millions of pictures of the gel to locate the precise positions of the tiny grains. The project, known as Stardust@home, has been set up by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Volunteers will be able to access the images via a web-based "virtual microscope".