Researchers have discovered never-before-seen types of crystals hidden in tiny grains of perfectly preserved meteorite dust. The dust was left behind by a massive space rock that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, nine years ago.
On February 15, 2013, an asteroid 18 meters in diameter and weighing 12,125 tons (11,000 metric tons) entered Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of about 40,000 mph (66,950 km/h).
Luckily, the meteor exploded some 14.5 miles (23.3 kilometers) over the city of Chelyabinsk in southern Russia, showering the area with tiny meteorites and avoiding a colossal single impact with the surface.
Experts at the time described the event as a major wake-up call to the dangers that asteroids posed to the planet.
The Chelyabinsk meteor blast was the largest of its kind in Earth’s atmosphere since the Tunguska event of 1908. According to NASA, it exploded with a force 30 times greater than the atomic bomb that shook Hiroshima.
Video footage of the event showed the space rock burning up in a flash of light that briefly outshined the Sun, before creating a powerful sonic boom that shattered glass, damaging buildings and injuring about 1,200 people in the city below, according to Live Science’s sister site Space. com.
In a new study, researchers analyzed some of the tiny fragments of space rock left behind after the meteor exploded, known as meteorite dust. Normally, meteors produce a small amount of dust when they burn, but the tiny grains are lost to scientists because they are either too small to find, are scattered by the wind, fall into the water, or are contaminated by the environment.
After the Chelyabinsk meteor blast, however, a massive cloud of dust hung in the atmosphere for more than four days before eventually raining down on Earth’s surface, according to NASA.
And fortunately, layers of snow that fell just before and after the event trapped and preserved some dust samples until scientists were able to recover them shortly thereafter.
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The researchers came across the new types of crystals while examining dust grains under a standard microscope.
One of these tiny structures, just large enough to be seen under a microscope, happened to be right in the center of one of the slides in focus when a team member peered through the eyepiece. If it had been somewhere else, the team would likely have missed it, according to Sci-News.
After analyzing the dust with more powerful electron microscopes, the researchers found many more of these crystals and studied them in much more detail.
But even then, “because of their small size, it was quite difficult to find the crystals with an electron microscope,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published May 7 The European Physical Journal Plus.
The new crystals came in two different forms; Quasi-spherical or “nearly spherical” shells and hexagonal rods, both “unique morphological features,” the researchers write in the study.
Further analysis using X-rays revealed that the crystals consisted of layers of graphite – a form of carbon made up of overlapping layers of atoms commonly used in pencils – surrounding a central nanocluster at the heart of the crystal.
The researchers suggest that the most likely candidates for these nanoclusters are buckminsterfullerene (C60), a cage-like sphere made of carbon atoms, or polyhexacyclooctadecane (C18H12), a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen.
The team suspects the crystals formed under the high-temperature and high-pressure conditions caused by the meteor’s breakup, although the exact mechanism is still unclear. In the future, scientists hope to track down more samples of meteorite dust from other space rocks to see if these crystals are a common byproduct of meteor bursts or unique to the Chelyabinsk meteorite explosion.
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This article was originally published by Live Science. Read the original article here.