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Dust Samples From Comet 67P Could Provide Clues to How the Solar System Formed

Sep 05, 2016 05:26 AM EDT
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ESA looks forward to Rosetta comet reaching orbit position closest to sun

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has analyzed dust samples from the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for the first time, which could reveal the origins of the solar system.

According to the researchers from the Space Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Graz, Austria, the fluffy comet dust particles are a pile of smaller grains stuck loosely together. The structure of the dust grains offers important insights into how comets and other objects in the early solar system were formed, astronomers said.

The report, which was published in the journal Nature, includes first results from Rosetta's atomic force microscope called MIDAS (Micro-Imaging Dust Analysis System). The instrument analyzed dust samples around the comet 67P collected by the Rosetta from November 2014 to February 2015, when the space probe moved farther from the comet.

"Other instruments could do science during the cruise, during the asteroid flybys and so on, but for us we really needed to get to the comet, and we are designed to look for the really smallest grains," Mark Bentley, MIDA principal investigator at the Space Research Institute in Austria, said in an interview with Space. "The dust grains that are smaller than a human hair, smaller than a red blood cell."

According to scientists, space dust is one of the most basic components of planets and other cosmic objects. Since the solar system started forming, comets have stored materials in an almost pristine state. This led the researchers to believe that comets, such as the comet 67P, could offer a rare opportunity to study micro-structures of dust particles, which have remained a mystery until now.

The discovered particles varied in size; some are 10 micrometers big while others are only five nanometers small. ESA believes these objects could have created early planetesimals and then created the planets and comets of the solar system.

"Until now we were never able to measure the properties of single grains with such high resolution," Mark Bentley, lead author of the study, told Mail Online. "Even the largest dust particle we present is smaller than a human hair, and the smallest is roughly the size of a bacterium."

Last week, the Rosetta probe witnessed a dramatic comet eruption caused by a landslide in one area of the comet 67P.

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