NASA seeks comet 'crumbs' with a new detection technique

LISA Pathfinder could map the trails of comet dust in the Solar System.

ESA/ATG medialab

It's relatively trivial to spot comets, but spotting the dust they leave behind? That's no mean feat -- it's like tracking grains of fast-moving sand on a cosmic-scale beach. NASA, however, might just have a way of mapping that dust. It's developing a technique that would use the movement of the ESA's LISA Pathfinder probe to detect the minuscule "crumbs" left by comets and asteroids. The trick involves tracking the tiny thruster bursts Pathfinder uses to compensate for dust stream impacts. When you measure the direction and strength of those bursts, you can get a good sense of the dust's impact location, size and trajectory.

This is just a proof of concept study, and NASA would have to get the go-ahead to use it. The dream is to use it with a dedicated gravitational wave observatory that's still in development. However, the possibilities are already very apparent. This could lead to a comprehensive map of the inner Solar System's dust, with clouds traced back to individual space rocks. That, in turn, could help understand how planets form and predict the likelihood of impacts that could prove deadly to future spacecraft.