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.

Ain’t THAT a Hit in The Head: Man Killed By Meteorite, ‘First Ever’

 

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A crater caused by a meteorite that is said to have killed a 40-year-old man in southern India.

NO ONE HAS NOT HEARD THE PHRASE ‘YOUR CHANCES OF GETTING HIT BY LIGHTNING ARE GREATER’ – OR SOME VARIATION ON THAT THEME. SUBSTITUTE ‘HIT BY LIGHTENING’ BY ‘KILLED BY A METEORITE’. IMAGINE THE ODDS.

A man in India, probably the first in the roughly 108 billion people ever born, was killed by a meteorite a few days ago (on Saturday, Feb. 6) because he was, most assuredly, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Had he actually been hit by the heaven-sent rock, Mr. V. Kamaraj, who operated a bus for a college in southern India, no doubt would have set a record – only meteorite-struck person – that would survive . . . well, a good deal longer than he, or all living before him, collectively did.

India RealTime, a service of the Wall Street Journal, says, “An unidentified object left a four-feet deep crater after falling near a cafeteria inside the Bharathidasan Engineering College campus at about 12.30 p.m. on Saturday, G. Baskar,  principal of the college in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, said.

“There was a noise like a big explosion,” said Mr. Baskar. “It was an abnormal sound that could be heard till at least 3 kilometers [about 2 miles] away,” he added.

Two miles and a great many more years: This would, India’s WSJ said, “be the first time in modern history that a person has been killed by a meteorite.”

“The powerful explosion smashed the windows of classrooms and the windshields of vehicles parked in the vicinity, India’s WSJ said. “Students at the college were immediately sent home and classes were suspended until Wednesday.”

Tragic as this is/was, why did the school deem it necessary to give students two days to emotionally recover and be up to studying again?

Mr. Baskar described the tiny rock fragments observed at the site of the explosion on Saturday as “blue-ish black” in color.

The WSJ report said that J. Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, said in a statement Sunday that Mr. Kamaraj died after a meteorite fell inside the college campus. She didn’t elaborate on what led authorities to believe the crater was caused by a meteorite. A spokesman for Ms. Jayalalithaa’s office couldn’t immediately be reached for comment by India’s Wall Street Journal.

A meteoroid is a small particle from an asteroid or comet that goes around the sun. When a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere it burns up, often seen as the light phenomenon known as a shooting star. A meteorite is a meteoroid that survives entry into the atmosphere and falls to Earth.

Sujan Sengupta, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, said there was “extremely little possibility of a small meteorite falling to the ground” and killing someone.

“If a bigger asteroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it will disintegrate and travel in different directions and because most of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, it is most likely to fall into the ocean,” Mr. Sengupta said.

According to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, there is no record “in modern times of any person being killed by a meteorite.”

“An individual’s chance of being killed by a meteorite is small, but the risk increases with the size of the impacting comet or asteroid,” NASA says on its website. A meteoroid larger than half a mile in diameter could have worldwide effects. If something smaller than that hits the Earth, it is likely to cause local damage.

The space agency’s “Near Earth Object Program” detects, tracks and characterizes potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that might approach Earth. As of Feb. 5, NASA says it has discovered 879 asteroids with a diameter of approximately a kilometer or larger. Experts say smaller asteroids and meteorites are harder, if not impossible, to track.

In 2013, a meteor explosion over Russia’s Ural Mountains left around 1,000 people injured, mostly by flying glass. Around 3,000 buildings were damaged. Russia’s Academy of Sciences said at the time that the meteor was several yards in diameter and weighed around 10 metric tons.

Ms. Jayalalithaa, the chief minister, announced compensation of 100,000 rupees ($1,473) for the family of the driver and 25,000 rupees to each of those injured.