Tag Archives: Stardust

Stardust found in meteorite older than Earth

Scientists studying what they think is grains of stardust in a meteorite the hit the Earth in 1969 have discovered the oldest material ever found on Earth, material that is actually older than the Earth itself.

The meteorite, dubbed the Murchison meteorite after the nearest city in Australia where it landed, has been a treasure trove of information for planetary scientists because so much of it was recovered right after impact.

About 30 years ago it was found that the rocks housed “presolar grains” – tiny grains of silicon carbide older than the Sun. But their exact age hadn’t been determined until now.

To figure that out, the researchers on the new study measured how long these presolar grains had been exposed to cosmic rays. These high-energy particles flit around space and can pass through solid matter, creating new elements inside the existing minerals as they interact with them. That means the scientists can measure the amount of these new elements in the grains to determine how long they were floating around in space – and, ultimately, how old they are.

In doing so, the team found that most of the grains were between 4.6 and 4.9 billion years old. The Sun itself is at the younger end of that range, at 4.6 billion years old, while the Earth didn’t form until 4.5 billion years ago.

But the oldest of the grains were dated to more than 5.5 billion years, making them the oldest known material on Earth. The team says that the history of these grains could be traced back even further, to the stars that birthed them some 7 billion years ago. According to the researchers, this finding suggests that our galaxy went through a period of intense star formation around that time.

Obviously there are uncertainties with this result, though their age estimates are quite reasonable and largely robust.

Did Stardust capture stardust?

Scientists now believe that the spacecraft Stardust captured seven particles from interstellar space during its seven year journey.

Inside the canister, a tennis racket-like sample collector tray captured the particles in silica aerogel as the spacecraft flew within 149 miles (about 240 kilometers) of a comet in January 2004. An opposite side of the tray holds interstellar dust particles captured by the spacecraft during its seven-year, three-billion-mile journey.

Scientists caution that additional tests must be done before they can say definitively that these are pieces of debris from interstellar space. But if they are, the particles could help explain the origin and evolution of interstellar dust. The particles are much more diverse in terms of chemical composition and structure than scientists expected. The smaller particles differ greatly from the larger ones and appear to have varying histories. Many of the larger particles have been described as having a fluffy structure, similar to a snowflake. [emphasis mine]

It appears that for these seven particles, the scientists conclude they are likely interstellar particles because of the speed in which they were traveling when captured as well as their make-up. Both suggest an origin outside the solar system.

However, we should be cautious about this. The data still remains tenuous and preliminary. More work obviously needs to be done to pin this down definitively. More information here.

Stardust to end its mission after twelve years

Stardust has ended its mission after twelve years and two comet flybys.

Ground controllers will command the spacecraft to fire up its four rocket thrusters one last time at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) today to use up its remaining fuel. Engineers plan to watch closely while the probe’s propellant tank ran dry to help future missions gauge their fuel reserves more precisely.

Stardust images of comet locate crater from Deep Impact’s impact

More news from Stardust: scientists have now identified what they think is the crater produced by Deep Impact’s impact in 2005. Key quote:

The images revealed a 150-metre-wide crater at the Deep Impact collision point that was not present in 2005. The crater is a subtle feature in the images, but it appears consistently in multiple views from the spacecraft. “So I feel very confident that we did find the [impact] site,” said mission member Peter Schultz of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, at a press briefing on Tuesday. The crater’s features are “subdued” rather than sharply defined, like those of craters made in hard materials like rock. “The message is: This surface of the comet where we hit is very weak,” said Schultz. The crater also has a small mound in its middle, indicating that some of the material thrown up by the impact was drawn by the comet’s gravity back down into the crater, he said: “In a way, it partly buried itself.”