Scientists have discovered fossilized space dust embedded in the white cliffs of Dover.

The sprawling cliffs along the English coastline have long been known for the fossilized creatures trapped within their walls, serving as evidence of changes that took place on Earth millions of years ago.

But, the new discovery sheds light on objects much further from home.

According to the researchers, cosmic dust can be used to trace the location of water-rich asteroids, which could one day serve as pit-stops for deep-space travelers.

The researchers were able to spot the cosmic dust based on the distinct Christmas tree-like shape of their crystal content

The researchers were able to spot the cosmic dust based on the distinct Christmas tree-like shape of their crystal content

Scientists have discovered fossilized space dust embedded in the white cliffs of Dover

Scientists have discovered fossilized space dust embedded in the white cliffs of Dover

Scientists have discovered fossilized space dust embedded in the white cliffs of Dover. Researchers were able to spot the cosmic dust based on the distinct Christmas tree-like shape of their crystal content (as seen on left)

HOW COSMIC DUST CAN LEAD TO WATER 

When cosmic dust breaks through Earth’s atmosphere, the extreme heat transforms its original mineral content, turning it into glass and crystals.

And, the heat vaporizes water molecules.

By analyzing past studies, the researchers found that shattered pieces of olivine crystals in cosmic dust are a proxy for water, as the cooling effect as water is lost creates temperature differences between the surface and the core.

According to the researcher, roughly 75 percent of the cosmic dust on Earth contains these crystals.

 

While cosmic dust has never been found at the white cliffs of Dover before, it has been found in rocks up to 2.7 billion years old.

In the new study, the team from Imperial College London argues that the dust at the site may have been overlooked as a result of the fossilization process, which masked its true identity.

As the dust fossilized, they explain, the original mineral content was replaced with different materials.

But, the researchers were able to spot the cosmic dust based on the distinct Christmas tree-like shape of their crystal content.

This dust could now help scientists to better understand events that took place millions of years ago, including major asteroid collisions.

It could even contain evidence of process that occurred 98 million years ago, a period from which cosmic dust records have been difficult to unearth, the researchers note.

The sprawling cliffs along the English coastline have long been known for the fossilized creatures trapped within their walls, serving as evidence of changes that took place on Earth millions of years ago

The sprawling cliffs along the English coastline have long been known for the fossilized creatures trapped within their walls, serving as evidence of changes that took place on Earth millions of years ago

The sprawling cliffs along the English coastline have long been known for the fossilized creatures trapped within their walls, serving as evidence of changes that took place on Earth millions of years ago

‘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,’ said Martin Suttle, lead author and a research postgraduate from Imperial’s Department of Earth and Science and Engineering.

‘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.’

While cosmic dust has never been found at the white cliffs of Dover before, it has been found in rocks up to 2.7 billion years old. Above, the intricate microscopic patterns of a specimen of fossilized space dust can be seen 

While cosmic dust has never been found at the white cliffs of Dover before, it has been found in rocks up to 2.7 billion years old. Above, the intricate microscopic patterns of a specimen of fossilized space dust can be seen 

While cosmic dust has never been found at the white cliffs of Dover before, it has been found in rocks up to 2.7 billion years old. Above, the intricate microscopic patterns of a specimen of fossilized space dust can be seen 

In the new study, the team from Imperial College London argues that the dust at the site may have been overlooked as a result of the fossilization process, which masked its true identity. Martin Suttle is pictured above, at the white cliffs taking chalk rock samples

In the new study, the team from Imperial College London argues that the dust at the site may have been overlooked as a result of the fossilization process, which masked its true identity. Martin Suttle is pictured above, at the white cliffs taking chalk rock samples

In the new study, the team from Imperial College London argues that the dust at the site may have been overlooked as a result of the fossilization process, which masked its true identity. Martin Suttle is pictured above, at the white cliffs taking chalk rock samples

In a second study about cosmic dust, the same team revealed a way to determine if cosmic dust is clay rich.

If so, this could act as a ‘diving rod’ for finding water rich asteroid in our system, as clay only forms where water is present.

When cosmic dust breaks through Earth’s atmosphere, the extreme heat transforms its original mineral content, turning it into glass and crystals.

And, the heat vaporizes water molecules.

By analyzing past studies, the researchers found that shattered pieces of olivine crystals in cosmic dust are a proxy for water, as the cooling effect as water is lost creates temperature differences between the surface and the core.

THE DWINDLING WHITE CLIFFS

The cliffs in East Sussex have only been documented for the past 150 years, but researchers were able to look back much further by dating samples of the rocks.

Cosmic rays penetrate through the atmosphere and collide with atoms in rocks, resulting in the production of rare isotopes such as beryllium-10 in the upper few metres of the Earth's surface.

In a recent study, researchers counted the number of beryllium-10 isotopes in our shore platform rock samples to work out how long the shore platform had been exposed to cosmic radiation, and therefore how long it has been since cliff retreat uncovered that section of platform.

They found the erosion rate of the cliffs was slow, around 0.8 inches (2 cm) a year, up until a few hundred years ago.

According to the researcher, roughly 75 percent of the cosmic dust on Earth contains these crystals.

This suggests these asteroids were rich in clay – and, water.

‘In the distant future, asteroids could provide human space explorers with valuable stop offs during long voyages,’ said Matt Genge, lead author from the College’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering.

‘Being able to source water is vital because it can be used to drink, to make oxygen and even fuel to power spacecraft.

‘The relevance of our study is that cosmic dust particles that land on Earth could ultimately be used to trace where these water-rich asteroids may be, providing a valuable tool for mapping this resource.’ 

 

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