Introduction: Stardust Paintings (Nebula Series)

The miniature paintings of the Nebula Series were made using a process I adapted from NASA to collect the 'stardust' from material that fell to earth from the comet Swift-Tuttle, the parent body of the Perseid meteor shower, in 2011.*

I made paintings made from material I collected on microscope slides. Each painting contains cosmic & terrestrial material and is constantly evolving while in contact with Earth's air in a process of oxidization; giving the work both a life and a kind of eventual death.

Many tons of dust grains, including samples of asteroids and comets, fall from space onto the Earth's atmosphere each day. Some scientists estimate that about 30,000 to 90,000 metric tons of space dust and micrometeorites strike Earth yearly, mostly in the form of particles less than a millimeter in size. Most cosmic dust particles in the 0.1 to 1-millimeter range are magnetic, a property that allows them to be separated out from terrestrial matter.

*Swift-Tuttle has been described as 'the single most dangerous object known to humanity,' with every orbit bringing the comet closer to Earth.

Step 1: Material List

NASA scientists use a solid silicone gel called Aerogel to collect interstellar dust without damaging the samples. The sponge-like structure is 99.8 percent empty space and is sandwiched in metal plates that unfold from the spacecraft to comb debris out of space while in slow orbit.

If you don't have any aerogel on hand or your spacecraft is otherwise committed, don't worry, This lesson modifies the NASA sample collection methods using simple household materials.

What you will need:

  1. Large Plastic Tubs
  2. Clean Waterproof Gloves
  3. Ziplock Bags
  4. Strong Magnet
  5. Needle
  6. Glass Baking Dish
  7. Oven
  8. Glass Slides
  9. Small Paintbrush
  10. Magnifying Glass or Microscope

Step 2: The Collection Bins

Find the biggest tub you can: plastic storage bins, coolers, kiddie pools, and plastic lined cardboard boxes will work in a pinch. I used a combination of plastic storage bins and a large acrylic tank that I made for this application.

You increase the likelihood of collecting cosmic material the larger the tubs and the longer you leave them outdoors. While literally tons of material falls to earth from space every day, finding actual stardust is like striking gold- wonderful and incredibly rare. Collecting during rainy days and periods of known meteor showers will increase the likelihood that you will find actual space material.

1. Clean the bins thoroughly.

2. Find a place for the tubs outdoors that is far away from obstacles (tall buildings, trees, etc) and fill tub with several inches of water. The water will trap fine particulates from the air. Placing the tubs as high as you can (on a roof for example) will help to eliminate terrestrial debris from your samples. Wait at least several days for the bins to collect material. Keep an eye on the tubs and remove any large organic debris (like leaves or bugs) that may have collected in the water. Refill with water as necessary.

*During my experiment, I was unable to return to the collection site for a period of two weeks. When I returned the water from the tubs had completely evaporated. The compositions that resulted on the bottom of the tubs were striking. The residue in the bottom of my tubs had reconstituted itself in a cosmological formation; a kind of remaking of its origins.

Step 3: Harvesting PT 1

It is best to bring the tubs indoors for collection. If this is not possible, try to harvest in low-wind conditions. We will use a magnet to separate the interstellar material from the smaller organic debris you will have collected in the tubs.

1. Place a magnet inside a clean sealed ziplock bag. The ideal magnet is strong and has a large surface area.

2. Use a gloved hand to 'disturb' the debris that have settled at the bottom of your tubs.

3. Once the material is sufficiently suspended in the water, gently 'rake' the magnet in the ziplock bag through the water using a very slow back and forth motion. Pay special attention to the lower region of the water and the bottom of the tub but make sure you are gentle in your movements. Most cosmic dust that makes it through the earth's atmosphere is comprised of iron and nickel (magnetic) and will cling to the outside of the bag.

*Note: for the purposes of this tutorial I used sand I collected from Ocean Beach. While the deep sea is an excellent place to hunt for stardust, the likelihood that any of the material here is of extra-terrestrial origin is very low. Still, it is possible, and I want to believe...

Step 4: ​Rinsing & Evaporation

1. Preheat an oven to 300-350 degrees.

2. Once you have sufficiently raked the water (at least 2 minutes) gently remove the bag from the water and place in the glass baking dish.

3. Open the ziplock bag and remove the magnet making sure the bag stays in the dish.

4. Measure out a cup of distilled water (you can use more if you have a large dish) and carefully pour the water over the outside of the bag to rinse any material the magnet collected into the glass baking dish.

5. Place the glass dish in the oven until the water has completely evaporated. Time will vary depending on how much water you used; check every 10 minutes. Remove the dish and allow to cool.

Step 5: Harvesting PT 2

Once the dish has come to room temperature we can now harvest the stardust! Chances are that any cosmic material you have collected will be too small to see with the naked eye. We will use the magnetic properties of the stardust to collect the material at this small scale.

1. Magnetize a needle. Stroke the needle in the same direction over the magnet, rather than back and forth, using steady, even strokes. After 50 strokes, the needle will be magnetized.

2. Use a staple to test the strength of the magnetization

3. Rub the needle across the bottom of the glass baking dish to collect the material

4. Place the needle on a slide or small plate of glass (a picture frame works well)

Step 6: Viewing Your Stardust

1. Before viewing under magnification, tape the needle down to the slide.

2. Place the slide under magnification. I used a ProScope USB digital microscope that capture stills, video, and time lapse directly to my computer (images shown here of the paintbrush and collected material under 50X magnification).

3. Remove all but two hairs from the small paintbrush. Use the brush to remove the collected material from the needle and to move the material around on the slide.

Step 7: Stardust Identification

While most of the particles you collected will be of terrestrial origin, the micrometeorites that make it though the high heat of entry through our atmosphere will be rounded and may have small pits on their surfaces.

The first image is courtesy of Jon Larsen of Project Stardust,

The last four images are of the material I collected taken under 400X magnification using the Proscope.

Step 8: Making the Paintings

I used a combination of acrylic paint and several kinds of oxidizers.

First, I laid down a drop of white acrylic paint on the slide. Then I added the stardust while the paint was still wet. Once the paint dried I experimented with adding the liquid oxidizers made from sulfur. Here is a link to Instructable user Laral's methods for rusting iron and steel using household chemicals.

Here is a time-lapse video I made of the process using the Proscope.

This project was intended to return metaphysical hypotheses rather than empirical data. What interested me most about the process was the abstraction of data and the formation of meaning in the mistakes of my methods. While science is dependent on observable and repeatable phenomena, truth and meaning are liberated from such methodologies and seem to arise from the realms of subjective experience. The work I make recovers the parts of human experience that are lost when absolute truth is thought to be found solely in scientific methodologies and conveyed in digital technologies. Rather, my practice utilizes the complexities of these systems to point toward a reality that is immaterial and unpredictable in nature.