Scientists found types of crystals never before seen in small, perfectly preserved grains of meteorite dust. A huge space rock exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk nine years ago, leaving behind the dust which scientists used to study in a lab.
An asteroid weighing 12,125 tons and measuring 18 meters wide entered the atmosphere on February 15, 2013.
Fortunately, the cosmic object exploded some 14 miles above Chelyabinsk, Russia, showering the surrounding area with small meteorites. Nevertheless, the experts at the time described the incident as a major wake-up call about the danger posed by asteroids.
A video recording of the event shows the space rock burning in a flash of light that was brighter than the sun. The sonic boom created by this flash of light was so powerful that it broke glass, damaged buildings, and injured over 1,200 people in the city.
Scientists studied the small pieces of space rock, known as meteor dust, left behind after a meteor exploded.
Scientists often miss the tiny grains left behind by meteors as they burn up because they are too small to find, they are blown away by the wind, they fall into the ocean, or their surroundings contaminate them.
However, a huge plume of dust floated in the sky for more than four days in the atmosphere following the explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. Scientists were able to recover some dust samples thanks to the layers of snow that fell before and after the event.
While examining specks of dust under a standard microscope, the study authors stumbled upon the new types of crystals.
A team member’s eyepiece just by chance focused on one of these tiny structures, which could be seen under a microscope when he looked at one of the slides. It would have been missed if he were anywhere else.
“The first carbon crystal was found during an investigation of the dust using an optical microscope because its facets happened to be in the focal plane,” researchers explained. “Finding them using an electron microscope was challenging due to their small size (about 10 µm) and low phase contrast.”
These crystals were found in many more clumps after the researchers examined the dust under more powerful electron microscopes.
Despite this, the scientists wrote in their paper published in The European Physical Journal Plus that finding the crystals with an electron microscope was a challenge because of their small size.
According to the researchers, the crystals appeared as nearly spheres and hexagonal rods, which were “unique morphological peculiarities.”.
A closer examination of the X-ray images revealed that the crystals were made up of multiple layers of graphite — a compound made of atoms overlapping, commonly used in pencils-circling a central nanocluster.
These nanoclusters might likely be buckminsterfullerene (C60), a ball of carbon atoms and hydrogen, or polyhexacyclooctadecane (C18H12), a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen.
While the exact mechanism is still unclear, the team suspects the crystals formed under a high-temperature and high-pressure environment caused by the bolide break-up. Future research will examine other samples of meteor dust from other space rocks to determine if this mineral crystal is a common by-product of meteor collisions or unique to the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion.
The findings of the study were published in EPJ Plus.
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