The Cosmic Dust collection encompasses samples of asteroids and comets, and spacecraft debris particulates that fall from space onto the Earth’s atmosphere each day. High flying aircraft with special sticky collectors capture cosmic dust grains as they fall through the stratosphere, before they become mixed with Earth dust. Cosmic dust grains include samples from comets and asteroids, containing material in the same condition as when the solar system began to form. Unlike meteorites, cosmic dust samples all bodies in the solar system. The ultra-clean Cosmic Dust Laboratory, established in 1981 to handle particles one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, curates thousands of cosmic dust particles and distributes samples to investigators worldwide.
Examination of cosmic dust reveals much about the populations of interplanetary dust and orbital debris particles in low-Earth orbit. Such information is useful to engineers planning protection of spacecraft against damage from high-velocity dust grains. The terrestrial dust and spacecraft debris particles are of considerable interest to atmospheric scientists and climatologists, since they influence some global atmospheric reactions.