Science News

Stardust Reveals Solar System's Secrets

Sun, 17th Dec 2006

Part of the show The Christmas Q & A Show

Listeners with good memories may remember that the Stardust mission came safely back to earth in January 2006, bringing with it precious samples or dust from the Comet Wild-2. Like the lump of ice and frozen peas at the back of your freezer, comets are dirty snowballs. They contain matter from the very beginning of our solar system, four and a half billion years ago. Researchers from Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum have used a technique called spectroscopy to look at the mineral content of dust samples from the comet. They found that the comet dust is made up of many different mineral compositions, rather than a single dominant one. The scientists think this means that there was a lot of mixing going on in our early solar system, before the planets formed. This means the solar system was born in much more turbulent conditions than previously thought - like some sort of cosmic blender. Some of the comet dust came from what is now the between Mars and Jupiter, while other particles came from a region much closer to the sun. Because Wild-2 was made in the far reaches of the solar system, some of the dust must have travelled great distances, suggesting a lot more turbulence than previous scientists have predicted. There's a great deal more analysis to be done on the dust samples from Wild-2, but they should reveal even more secrets about how our solar system was made


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