Antarctica is the world’s least populated continent. But a recent finding of a deposit of comet dust on its surface may give researchers more clues about how the solar system came into being.
Of all the places in the world you would think that we would find comet dust, we find it in the least populated place, Antarctica. For the uninitiated, comet is the oldest astronomical particles that we can study, and it gives clues about how the solar system may have formed.
Until recently, the only way scientists could collect “chondritic porous interplanetary dust particles,” or comet dust, without going to space has been by flying research planes high in the stratosphere. It’s painstaking work: Several hours of flying time typically yield one particle of dust. Working with such small samples significantly limits the kinds of tests and analysis scientists can perform on the material.
Now in Antarctica, we found a lot more material than we do on an average research flight, by some estimates even whole orders of magnitude more. If more sources of such comet dust come to light, it could lead to a paradigm shift in how such comet dust can be collected.
Also, the dust collected in Antarctica is cleaner than the typical dust samples that come to us from the stratosphere. Right now, scientists gathering comet dust by plane use plates coated with silicon oil to trap the particles like flies in flypaper. That leaves them contaminated with both the oil and the organic compounds later used to clean them, making it especially difficult for scientists who want to study what organic material they might contain.
Now a good next step would be to compare the particles that we find in the sky with the particles that we find in the snow in Antarctica, and then use the differences to deepen our knowledge of how planets may have formed.
If that happens, the planet’s least populated continent may just reveal the most secrets about its origins.

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Jenn Patrick

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