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Headlines Published on 19 January 2007

Title European labs partake in Stardust samples

Two European teams are participating in an all-star project consisting of labs from all over the globe investigating the origins of the solar system. The labs are studying space particles collected by the spacecraft Stardust. Stardust was sent to the edges of the solar system to collect material left behind by the Wild 2 comet, which is presumed to have formed around the same time as our system. Experts hope the dust contains material from that time untouched by solar radiation. To help analyse the ancient grains, samples have been sent across the globe, including to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). Project findings were recently reported in a special series in Science

Cometary and Interstellar Dust Analyser used to collect ESRF samples. © Matt+
A Cometary and Interstellar Dust Analyser used to collect ESRF samples.
Researchers have been carefully sifting through the contents returned by the Stardust spacecraft over the past year looking for vital information on the origins of the solar system. They have been treating the samples with X-rays at ESRF and other labs to produce imagines scientists use to determine the elements embedded in the cometary material.

Scientists posit that planets and other interstellar bodies, such as comets, formed from a dense disc of gas rotating around a newly formed star. Since Wild 2 is believed to have originated in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune, scientists believe it may have been spared solar radiation that can alter its characteristics. If they are correct, Wild 2 may contain material intact from the earliest stages of the solar system.

Stardust travelled 2.88 billion miles (4.63 billion km) during its seven-year voyage to bring back the significant catch of about one microgram of cometary dust. The samples have been contrasted with meteorites found on Earth believed to be around the same age, and have been found to contain similar minerals and organic materials. Despite the similarities, the Stardust samples possess properties not found in known samples, which scientists expect will give them a glimpse into the development of a nascent solar system.

For example, researchers have found compounds called Calcium Aluminum-rich Inclusions that are believed to have been formed inside the solar nebula. The finding suggests the material was transported to the edge of the solar system where Wild 2 was formed, challenging the widely-held belief that comets only form beyond Jupiter’s orbit.

Two hundred samples from the mission have been distributed around the world to the 175 members of the Preliminary Examination Team. Remaining samples will be preserved for future researchers to be studied with novel tools as technology progresses.

Two European teams, one from the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay and The Ecole Normale Supérieur in Lyon (France), and the other from the Universities of Frankfurt (Germany), Antwerp and Ghent (Belgium), travelled to the ESRF to carry out experiments on a total of 7 samples.

More information:

  • European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
  • Science, Vol. 314, Issue 5806, Pages 1653-1796

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