Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2019

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



The objective of this thesis is to describe the study of cometary materials returned by NASA’s Stardust mission. The majority of the research presented in this thesis focuses on improving our characterization and understanding of the fine (< 1 µm) component of comet Wild 2. Investigations of the Stardust foils are conducted with correlated Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), Focused Ion Beam (FIB) sample preparation, and Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM). Investigations of the Stardust aerogels are conducted with plasma ashing sample preparation followed by detailed characterization of the material with TEM. Additional studies of the Stardust interstellar foils, as well as the use of a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) to search images of the Stardust foils for impact features, are also presented. As a part of this thesis I have developed a new technique for analyzing the Stardust aerogels through the use of plasma ashing sample preparation. This technique is an improvement upon previous attempts to separate cometary materials from the aerogel through the use of HF vapor etching. Plasma ashing allows for cometary materials trapped within the Stardust aerogels to be deposited directly onto TEM grids allowing for detailed characterization of the cometary material with minimal interference from the aerogel itself. The correlated SEM/FIB/TEM studies of the Stardust foils demonstrated here nearly double the number of Stardust craters that have been elementally and structurally characterized in scientific literature. The crater impactor residues were largely composed of combinations of silicates and iron-nickel sulfides that, following impact, rapidly quenched into amorphous melt layers. Two craters were found to contain signatures of the refractory minerals spinel and taenite, indicating a component of the Wild 2 fines originated in the inner Solar System. However, the lack of crystalline material throughout the crater residues suggests that the fine component may largely be composed of amorphous silicates that likely formed in the outer Solar System. Additionally, the submicron Stardust craters appeared enriched in volatile elements relative to CI chondrites, further suggesting that the fine component of Wild 2 originated from a reservoir that was separate from the more refractory coarse (> 1 µm) component. The Stardust aerogel samples returned carbon-rich and potential oldhamite grains. Carbon-rich materials have not been previously observed in the Stardust foils, likely due to the violent collection methods, and the result suggests the ashing technique may be used to better characterize components of the Wild 2 fines that have been difficult to investigate. The presence of oldhamite in the Stardust aerogels would be scientifically significant as it is formed in highly reducing conditions and has only been identified in enstatite chondrites and enstatite achondrites. As a result, our results may call into question the Warren gap hypothesis, which would prohibit the presence of such highly reduced materials in the outer Solar System at the time that comet Wild 2 accreted.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Ryan Ogliore

Committee Members

Martin H. Israel, Bradley L. Jolliff, Kun Wang, Brian Rauch,


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