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.

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Spaced Out: NASA ‘Finds’ 1,284 New Planets? And We Should Care Because …?

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With an unending number of life-saving and life-style problems (not to mention war-caused ones) yet to be solved on this planet, assorted governments are unconscionably spending incredible sums of taxpayer (and looted) dollar/dollar equivalents on space exploration.

Regardless of how young you are, it is highly unlikely that your grandchildren, or even your great-grandchildren, will somehow – in any way – see a result from all this effort that may, just may, prove to be a benefit either to the survival of the human race and its environment or to solve the question ‘where did we, all of this, come from’.

Think of it this way: Say you’re a 25-year-old parent; your child becomes a 25-year-old parent, who becomes a 25-year-old parent. That first grandchild of his or hers first-born would arrive in the year 2066 – a mere fifty years from now.

NASA things we should have great hopes for those of that age.

I think they’re nuts!

Some are excited that NASA has ‘found and verified’ the existence of 1,284 new planets. I cannot comprehend what they means – given that the nearest of then is way beyond the pack-a-lunch range. Way beyond, in fact, any distance man could travel in a lifetime, as we know it.

NASA speculates there may be another ‘world’ among that mass of objects; A world that may be somewhat like our own. (There are increasing reasons why that fate should not be wished on anyone, anywhere!)

And we should be spending hundreds of millions – or more – to ‘prove’ that’s so, and then plan to spend even more trying to determine if, as popular songs have asked, “is there life out there”. . . why?

I considerable myself to be fairly liberal. But I’m a bend-over-backwards conservative when it comes to wasting tax payers dollars on space exploration.

Look up. Enjoy the view of the stars – and perhaps a planet or comet or two – and consider it to be, as it is, an un-understandable feature of the universe you live in.

Then go back to imaging how you, as an individual, might contribute, or add to, the richness of this world.

This is a world wracked with problems – with starving people, with failed or failing economies, with diseases that could, with enough funding behind them, be stopped, or cured.

Still, millions are spent on super telescopes and other means of exploring that vast void beyond us; Millions that might better be spent, in whole or part, on dealing with earth-based issues.

Might be, and should be!