Fossilized Space Dust Can Teach Us About the Solar System's Formation

Monday, 18 September 2017 - 8:32PM
Space
Solar System
Monday, 18 September 2017 - 8:32PM
Fossilized Space Dust Can Teach Us About the Solar System's Formation
Immanuel Giel/Wikimedia Commons
There's no denying that fossils are pretty cool. From the humble swirly ammonite to the towering T-Rex, there's plenty to get excited about when it comes to the rocky bones of long-extinct creatures.

Just when it seemed like things couldn't get any cooler, scientists have made a new discovery: mixed in among the remains of sea creatures from millions of years ago, England's White Cliffs of Dover also play host to fossilized space dust that could well be from the formation of the solar system.

Cosmic dust rains down on planet Earth constantly. We don't notice it because, well, it's dust - how many hours a day do you spend looking at dust? But it's constantly present, with over 60 tons of dust falling on the Earth every single day. Plenty of astronomers are eager to get up close and personal with so-called micrometeorites in order to learn more about the prevalent forces in space which can cause changes in this dust.



The problem is, we don't really have a way of looking back millions of years to see how the composition of this dust has changed over time. Theoretically, as the solar system took form, the dust that was kicking around was very different to what we find settling on our planet in the modern era. As the Earth formed, cooled, and eventually became home to living creatures, the dust would likely have changed over time, into something very different than whatever had come before.

Finding space dust from an early period in the solar system's lifecycle, then is a pretty big deal for the scientists who study the composition of the universe and how it's changed over time. According to scientist Martin Suttle:

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"The iconic white cliffs of Dover are an important source of fossilized creatures that help us to determine the changes and upheavals the planet has undergone many millions of years ago. It is so exciting because we've now discovered that fossilized space dust is entombed alongside these creatures, which can also provide us with information about what was happening in our solar system at the time."
Closing quote


It remains to be seen exactly what will be learned from dust from an earlier period of Earth's history. Space dust has previously been blamed for a miscalculation that was temporarily held up as definitive proof of the Big Bang, but there's definitely potential for far older space dust to provide some tantalizing new insights into how our solar system and the wider universe has changed over time.

There's a lot of research to be done, not just on this fossilized dust, but also on dust that exists throughout the solar system (the late, great Cassini spotted some good dust circling around Saturn not too long ago). With any luck, we should be able to gain a better understanding of our universe from gazing closely at the samples that have been located among the fossilized sea creatures of Dover's white cliffs.
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