Particles from early solar system found in comet dust

Experiments trace interstellar dust back to solar system's formation

As comets, like Hale Bopp shown here, pass near the Sun, they release dust that can reach Earth's orbit and settle through the atmosphere where it can be collected.

Among samples of interplanetary particles gathered from our planet's upper atmosphere, the scientists uncovered interstellar dust grains that have formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was just starting out. The team's insights will be significant in the deeper understanding of how the universe was formed.

An worldwide team, led by Hope Ishii, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH Manoa), studied the particles' chemical composition using infrared light at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source (ALS).

The researchers conclude by noting that their picture is incomplete, and much of the data is still rough-for instance, the elemental composition of GEMS sometimes only matches the solar elemental composition collectively, exhibiting chemical anomalies at higher resolution.

The "dust" is actually tiny glassy grains called GEMS, or glass embedded with metal and sulfides - typically less than 1/100th the thickness of a human hair.

Researchers from University of Hawaii showed that the initial solids from which the solar system was formed consisted nearly entirely of amorphous silicate, carbon and ices. However, scientists posited that most of these particles may have been consumed in the process, while the rest could have been trapped in small, icy cold bodies forming in the outer nebula. "Our observations suggest that these exotic grains represent surviving pre-solar interstellar dust that formed the very building blocks of planets and stars", Hope Ishii, one of the authors behind the latest work, said in another statement.


According to a report by Science Daily, these ancient particles are believed to have come from comets and were analyzed in a series of experiments at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

The UH Manoa team put these particles under the electron microscopes at the Berkeley Lab and discovered that the GEMS are made up of subgrains which clustered together in a low-temperature environment before the comet they likely originate from was even created.

The nanoscale GEMS subgrains are bound together by dense organic carbon in clusters comprising the GEMS grains.

They start by proposing that GEMS formed within the interstellar medium via grain shattering, amorphization and erosion from supernovae shocks, and experienced subsequent periods of aggregation.

The types of carbon that rim the subgrains and that form the matrix in these particles decompose with even weak heating, suggesting that the GEMS could not have formed in the hot inner solar nebula, and instead formed in a cold, radiation-rich environment, such as the outer solar nebula or pre-solar molecular cloud.

Study co-author James Cliston says that these dust particles are as old as time, as they survived through the formation of the planetary bodies in our solar system.

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