Researchers have discovered never-before-seen 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.
Anasteroid measuring 59 feet (18 meters) in diameter and weighing 12,125 tonnes (11,000 metric tons) entered Earth's atmosphere on 15 February 2013 at a rate of 41,600 mph (66,950 km/h).
The meteor exploded about 14.5 miles (23.3 kilometers) above the town of Chelyabinsk in southern Russia, soaking the area in tiny meteorites and avoiding a massive single collision with the surface.
Experts at the time described the event as a significant wake-up call about the dangers asteroids pose to the planet.
According to NASA, the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion was the largest of its kind to occur in Earth's atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event. It exploded with a force 30 times greater than the atomic bomb that struckHiroshima.
The Chelyabinsk meteor explosion, 2013, is depicted in a model. (NASA/Goddard)
According to Live Science's sister websiteSpace.com, the space rock was captured in a flash of light that was briefly brighter than the Sun before forming a massive sonic boom that fractured glass, damaged houses, and wounded 1,200 people in the city below.
Researchers examined small fragments of space rock that were left behind after a meteor exploded, known as meteorite dust. Usually, meteors produce a small amount of dust as they burn up, but the tiny grains are lost to scientists because they are either too small to find, are blown by the wind, or are contaminated by the environment.
According to NASA, a massive cloud of dust settled in the atmosphere after the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded.
And, thanks to layers of snow that fell shortly before and after the event, some dust samples were trapped and preserved until scientists could retrieve them shortly after.
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While they were examining dust particles under a standard microscope, the researchers discovered new types of crystal.
An electron microscope shows a close-up of one of the new crystals (Taskaev et al.)
When one team member peered through the eyepiece, one of these tiny structures, which was only tiny enough to see under the microscope, landed unexpectedly in focus right at the center of one of the slides. According to Sci-News, the team would likely have missed it if it had been elsewhere.
The researchers examined the dust with more powerful electron microscopes and discovered many more of these crystals.
In their paper, published May 7, the authors noted that "finding the crystals using an electron microscope was rather difficult due to their small size."
The new crystals came in two distinct shapes: quasi-spherical, or "almost spherical," shells and hexagonal rods, both of which were "unique morphological characteristics."
Further investigation using X-rays revealed that the crystals were made of layers of graphite, a common pencil material, which are made up of overlapping sheets of atoms.
The most likely nanocluster candidates are buckminsterfullerene (C60), a cage-like ball of carbon atoms, or polyhexacyclooctadecane (C18H12), a carbon and hydrogen-containing substance.
The researchers suspect that the meteor break-ups triggered high-temperature and high-pressure conditions, although the precise mechanism is still unclear. In the future, they hope to examine other samples of meteorite dust from other space rocks to see if these crystals are a common consequence of meteor break-ups or are unique to the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion.
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Live Science published this article in part as an original article.