The first samples of dust from a comet millions of kilometres away have arrived in the UK to undergo analysis.
Scientists at the OU have begun research on the material
The grains were captured by the US space agency's Stardust probe from a comet dating to the beginning of our Solar System, 4.6 billion years ago.
Last month, a capsule from the Stardust mission landed in Utah, containing over a million miniscule particles.
The UK scientists hope the cometary dust will shed light on the origins of the Solar System.
It is the first time samples of cometary and interstellar dust have been returned to Earth.
Scientists from the Open University, Natural History Museum, Imperial College, University of Kent and University of Manchester are the lucky recipients of parcels containing material from the Comet Wild-2.
Three different kinds of samples have been distributed to the UK for investigation:
- Foil from the particle collector
- Blocks of aerogel, the porous material used to collect the tiny particles
- And the extracted particles themselves
Scientists at the Open University, in Milton Keynes, were extremely excited to receive samples of foil this week, and research began immediately.
'Interstellar building blocks'
"We are looking at the foil in an electron microscope to find the craters made by particles," explained Professor Monica Grady, from the Open University's Planetary and Space Science Research Institute.
"We will look at the number of craters, the size and the depth of the craters on the foil to give us an idea of the numbers of particles and the mass of the particles."
They will also use the electron microscope to see if there are any residues of the particles left in a bid to obtain chemical information about them.
Examination of the particles themselves, either from the aerogel or the particles extracted already, will be used to determine information about their mineralogy and chemistry, the environment in which the comet formed and also the composition of the comet.
Techniques such as X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy will be used for preliminary analysis.
The Stardust probe captured images of Comet Wild-2
The comet, which contains material unchanged since the birth of the Solar System, may help to answer questions about how the Earth formed.
"Less than a teaspoon-full of these minute comet dust particles may give us the answers to some of the most important questions in planetary science," explained Imperial's Dr Matt Genge, another proud owner of some comet dust.
"Did comets seed the Earth with water for the oceans and the organics to make living things? What were the basic interstellar building blocks of planets and how were these assembled 4.5 billion years ago? " he added.
In addition to the UK, samples have been sent out worldwide and the mammoth task of gathering information about the tiny particles is now underway.
"Receiving these samples is like being the first man on the Moon, only without the space suits," Dr Genge commented.
"It's enormously exciting to be one of the first people to examine these tiny dust grains from a comet."