Britain’s famous White Cliffs of Dover have yielded a fascinating find: galactic specks called micrometeorites, or more simply, space dust.
Scientists found a total of 76 preserved pieces embedded in the cliff’s white chalk, dating back 87 million years ago to the Coniacian age, the New York Post reports. While the world is actually covered in space dust, with some 22,000 to 33,000 tons falling on Earth annually, this latest find is unusual as it can give scientists a better understanding of the early days of the solar system.
Martin Suttle, lead researcher on the study, said,
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.
He further explained, “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.”
These micrometeorites are very difficult to detect, and fossilized space dust is even harder to procure, because the Earth undergoes processes through time that replaces most of the space dust’s original composition. These particles found in Dover can help scientists re-examine events such as asteroid collisions that took place up to 98 million years ago.
In addition, the discovery has helped scientists come up with a way to determine if every piece of space dust was rich in clay, according to an accompanying study in Geology. “In the distant future, asteroids could provide human space explorers with valuable stop offs during long voyages. Being able to source water is vital because it can be used to drink, to make oxygen and even fuel to power spacecraft,” Matt Genge, the lead author on the geology study, said. “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.”
The study was published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.