The ‘Cometary and Interstellar Dust Analyser’ (CIDA) is a particle impact time-of-flight mass spectrometer onboard the NASA spacecraft STARDUST. A series of positive and negative ion mass spectra from the impact of (apparently) interstellar dust particles has been collected since 1999. In the meantime laboratory work has been performed to better understand the ion formation processes of organic grains impacting at those speeds (>15 km/s) and to relate them to some other ion formation methods. The key ion types were the negative ions, with some additional information from the positive ions. Here, first the principal ion formation rules are briefly reviewed. Secondly, the common substance class is inferred mainly by the application of exclusion principles, and appears to be partly condensed aromatic and quinonoid compounds with high oxygen and low nitrogen content. Oxygen appears to be present in quinone-type structures with condensed aromatic rings, possibly with furan substructures and some hydroxyl moieties. Some nitrogen may be present in pyrrole- or quinoline-type structures. Considerations of thermodynamics and radiation physics of these dust particles within the solar system are consistent with this interpretation. Quinoenzyme cofactors such as the known compound pyrroloquinoline-quinone (PQQ) and its subconstituents would be expected to yield similar mass spectra. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.