Ambitious Amateur Explorer Makes Amazing Discovery: Dawn-of-Time Space Dust

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Jon Larson’s “night job” is as a well-known jazz musician in Norway. His volunteer “day job” for the past half dozen years or so has been to search accumulated detritus in rain gutters for space debris. He convinced Dr. Matthew Genge, a Senior Lecturer in Earth and Planetary Science at Imperial College, London, to ‘have his back’, lending his scientific knowledge to analyzing “suspect” bits and bobs. To the total amazement of Dr. Genge, they’ve succeeded beyond even Larson’s wildest dream: They’ve collectively collected and identified particles of “space dust” having “origins dating back to the birth of the solar system,” as an article on LiveScience.com put it.

Their write-up was based on one in the journal Geology, which noted that Larson collected something like 500 “micrometeorites” that were identified as such “on the basis of their compositions, mineralogies, and textures.” No such early-space discoveries of this magnitude have ever before been recorded.

And the significance of this is? Even though they have only tiny specimens to work with, scientists can, in studying these particles, learn more about how our universe formed and, hopefully, make discoveries that, in some hard-to-imagine way, will advance human knowledge about how we came to “be”.

The LiveScience article notes that, “Our solar system is filled with dust from collisions between asteroids and venting from comets; The most visible sign of this dust encountering Earth are the meteor showers that light up the upper atmosphere as Earth orbits though one of the many dusty trails left behind these interplanetary vagabonds. However, the tiny particles that rain through the atmosphere as “shooting stars” burn up completely, leaving only a bright flash in their wake. Their journey comes to an abrupt end as a blaze of super-heated glory.

Dr. Genges noted that, ““These particles [in gutter sediment] are almost definitely not coming from meteor showers as that dust comes in too fast — it comes in at maybe 30 kilometers per second [67,000 miles per hour] — and it completely evaporates in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The gutter particles are thought to enter the atmosphere at a speed of around 12 kilometers per second (27,000 miles per hour) where atmospheric heating does inevitably heat up the particles, but the dust survives the fall. Judging by their size of around 0.3 millimeters, these are likely the fastest dust particles to survive the hot atmospheric entry, Genges said. Through analysis of the 500 specimens, the researchers found there to be a mix of particles that originate from asteroids and others that originate from comets.

“We have found dust particles that we think come from comets and they are subtly different from those that come from asteroids … they are carbon rich. Whereas the ones from asteroids look similar to the material from meteorites, that are also from asteroids,” he added.

Separating the cosmic particles from plain old gutter dirt is no easy task, but the researchers used an important trait found in these space particles to their advantage — they contain minerals that make them magnetic. So, by magnetically separating the dirt under the microscope, these particles could be found.

“These [particles] are very similar to the cosmic dust from deep sea sediments,” said Genges. “The main difference is that these are very young. Because they’ve been largely collected from roofs on commercial buildings, those buildings have their gutters cleaned at least every 3-5 years, so we know these [particles] have landed on Earth at least in the last 5 years. Whereas particles found on the seabed are up to 50,000 years old. These are a sample of what’s landing on Earth, practically today.”

As this dust has fallen to Earth within the last 5 years, the researchers could even deduce how the solar system dust falling on Earth has changed over the last million years. The dust found in city gutters contains fewer crystals than the dust that has been found in million-year-old ice Antarctica, for example, but the particles are remarkably similar to cosmic dust that fell onto Earth in medieval times.

According to an Imperial College London press release, the researchers think that the changes in dust particle structure could be down to very small orbital changes in the solar system’s planets over millions of years. The slight gravitational disturbances likely change the trajectory of the interplanetary dust, causing it to hit the Earth’s atmosphere at different speeds and angles. These slight changes can therefore influence how much heating is caused by atmospheric entry which, in turn, influences the size of the particles that make it to the ground and influence the shape of the crystals inside the microscopic grains.

In short, these tiny cosmic grains of dust hold an incredible amount of information about the state of the planets’ orbits when they hit Earth, but they are also the very tiny fossilized remains of our solar system, emerging directly from the material in the nebula that went on to form our sun and the planets.

“The actual materials of comets and asteroids have a very long history; they date back to the birth of our solar system four and a half billion years ago,” said Genges.

When Oscar Wilde composed his famous quote, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” little did he know that, one day, a Norwegian amateur scientist would be looking for star dust in the gutter.

Space Exploration, And Explorers From Space – Which Matters Most, or At All?

 

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Heaven knows (or at least poor people do) that terrestrial problems, issues of this world – issues such as clean water, rising earth temperatures, land too dry to farm, people virtually too poor to beg – can only be addressed with massive amounts of money, and human volunteer and paid-for effort.

And everyone – except the poor, who have heard it before, and no longer listen – knows that resources are limited, and ‘only so much can be done’ to address this, or that natural crisis, not to mention suddenly occurring disasters.

And still, and still: Nations as diverse as China and the United States are spending untold sums exploring areas of space no one is ever likely to visit, or call home, or – bottom line – realize any we-can’t-live-without benefits from.

The U.S. just achieved the remarkable feat of having a manmade craft enter the gravitational field of Jupiter, a planet some 2 billion miles from Earth, after a journey lasting 5 years. It’s not the first craft to have achieved that – The Galileo spacecraft spent eight years in the area, with far less capable technology than Juno’s, up to 2003, when it burned up in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

China's FAST telescope

Meanwhile, China is spending far smaller sums on a whole different kind of space exploration: Via a massive, ‘Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope’ (FAST) in Guizhou Province. It’s mission, as a recent article in Asia Times put it, is “answering that timelessly engrossing question: are we alone in the universe?”

There are those who believe that question has already been answered, and that, in ways not being revealed to the public, mankind (at least the American version) already is benefiting from technologies that could enable beings from elsewhere to visit Earth.

The Asia Times article includes a link to a fascinating hour-long film that includes a supposed interview session with a being from somewhere far beyond this planet – possibly even from a different dimension, and a different version of reality. Experts in several fields, including the study of concepts of extraterrestrial beings, film-making, and supposed goings-on at a highly classified site (many levels higher than ‘top secret’) in Nevada, appeared on camera and expressed their opinions as to whether the film, which is available (via our link) on YouTube, and the Extraterrestrial (ET) being it depicts, are real. Their answers varied, from ‘fake’ to ‘definitely real’.

The film included several photos of ‘flying saucer’-type spacecraft, supposedly not unlike vehicles ETs have, the film and the Chinese say, have used to come from ‘wherever’ to here – Earth. One technician, who reported having access to the engine from such a craft, said it appeared to be capable of enabling travel at the speed of light, or even faster.

If that is true – that there is such an engine with such capabilities, and the U.S. government is aware of it and is (or has already) reverse-engineered it to learn how it works – why is the U.S. continuing to use technology that causes a trip like Juno’s to Jupiter take five years?

All else aside – all else aside – that pretty much clinches the question for me as to whether or not mankind, at least the American version, has interacted with technology that would allow space travel at speeds we can only dream of today.

But I remain mystified why the U.S. government thinks it makes any sense to go to Jupiter, even if doing so might enable scientists to learn more about how our universe and the planets in it formed came to be.

We came to be, however we did. Let’s use that as a starting point, and work to deal with real issues of the planet we live on and how to ensure it remains livable well beyond the personal demise of its present residents.