Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Physicist Reads Solar System's History In Grains Of Comet Dust

Date:
January 8, 2008
Source:
University of Minnesota
Summary:
Four years ago, NASA's Stardust spacecraft chased down a comet and collected grains of dust blowing off its nucleus. When the spacecraft Comet Wild-2 returned, comet dust was shipped to scientists all over the world, including University of Minnesota physics professor Bob Pepin. After testing helium and neon trapped in the dust specks, Pepin and his colleagues report that while the comet formed in the icy fringes of the solar system, the dust appears to have been born close to the infant sun.

Comet Wild 2.
Credit: NASA

Four years ago, NASA's Stardust spacecraft chased down a comet and collected grains of dust blowing off its nucleus. When the spacecraft Comet Wild-2 returned, comet dust was shipped to scientists all over the world, including University of Minnesota physics professor Bob Pepin. After testing helium and neon trapped in the dust specks, Pepin and his colleagues report that while the comet formed in the icy fringes of the solar system, the dust appears to have been born close to the infant sun and bombarded by intense radiation from these and other gases before being flung out beyond Neptune and trapped in the comet.

The finding opens the question of what was going on in the early life of the solar system to subject the dust to such intense radiation and hurl them hundreds of millions of miles from their birthplace.

The studies of cometary dust are part of a larger effort to trace the history of our celestial neighborhood.

"We want to establish what the solar system looked like in the very early stages," said Pepin. "If we establish the starting conditions, we can tell what happened in between then and now." One early event was the birth of Earth's moon, about 50 million years after the solar system formed.

Also, the gases he studies have relevance even closer to home. "Because some scientists have proposed that comets have contributed these gases to the atmospheres of Earth, Venus and Mars, learning about them in comets would be fascinating," he said.

Comet Wild-2 (pronounced Vilt-two) is thought to have originated in the Kuiper Belt, a comet-rich region stretching from just inside the orbit of Neptune to well beyond Pluto. As it grew in this roughly -360 F region, it incorporated grains of dust and ambient gas.

The comet received a visit from the Stardust spacecraft in early January 2004, two years after its launch. Veering as close as 149 miles to the comet nucleus, Stardust used a spongy, ultralight glass-fiber material called aerogel to trap the dust. At the moment of encounter, the spacecraft exposed a sheet of aerogel -- supported by a framework -- to the stream of particles blowing off the nucleus.

"It looked like a tennis racket," said Pepin. "It was exposed for approximately 20 minutes."

The aerogel trapped aggregates of fine particles that hit at 13,000 miles per hour and split on impact. The collisions left drumstick-shaped trails pointing inward from the surface of the aerogel.

After the collection, the spacecraft headed home and parachuted its payload safely back to Earth in January 2006. A few months later, Pepin received three sub-samples of particles and colleagues at Nancy University, France, received two others, all from the same particle "hit."

Their task was to analyze gases locked in tiny dust grains about a quarter of a billionth of a gram in weight. As a first step, the researchers heated the grains to about 1,400 degrees C., liberating gases imprisoned for eons.

"The particles probably came from the first million years or even less, of the solar system's existence," Pepin said. That would be close to 4.6 billion years ago. If our middle-aged sun were 50 years old, then the particles were born in the first four days of its life.

The research appears in the Jan. 4 issue of the journal Science.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Minnesota. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Minnesota. "Physicist Reads Solar System's History In Grains Of Comet Dust." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 January 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080103153222.htm>.
University of Minnesota. (2008, January 8). Physicist Reads Solar System's History In Grains Of Comet Dust. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080103153222.htm
University of Minnesota. "Physicist Reads Solar System's History In Grains Of Comet Dust." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080103153222.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

Share This




More Space & Time News

Friday, July 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: ISS Cargo Ship Launches in Kazakhstan

Raw: ISS Cargo Ship Launches in Kazakhstan

AP (July 23, 2014) The Progress 56 cargo ship launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Wednesday. NASA says it will deliver cargo and crew supplies to the International Space Station. (July 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks from Space Station

Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks from Space Station

AP (July 22, 2014) A Russian Soyuz cargo-carrying spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station on Monday. The craft is due to undergo about ten days of engineering tests before it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere. (July 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong

NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong

AP (July 21, 2014) NASA honored one of its most famous astronauts Monday by renaming a historic building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It now bears the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. (July 21) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Neil Armstrong's Post-Apollo 11 Life

Neil Armstrong's Post-Apollo 11 Life

Newsy (July 19, 2014) Neil Armstrong gained international fame after becoming the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. But what was his life like after the historic trip? Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins