Alien Mineral From Comet Dust Found in Earth’s Atmosphere

by Nancy Atkinson on June 12, 2008

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Astoundingly, about 40,000 tons of dust particles fall to Earth each year which originates from space “leftovers,” mostly from disintegrating comets and asteroid collisions. Scientists are very interested in this dust because of its pristine nature –it is made of the original building blocks of the solar system. Some of that dust also resides in Earth’s atmosphere, and for years, NASA has routinely collected cosmic and interplanetary dust from Earth’s stratosphere with high-altitude research aircraft. NASA announced today that a new mineral has been found from this atmospheric research, in material that likely came from a comet.


Usually, any unique dust particles found in the atmosphere are difficult to trace as far as their origin, and whether it came from a comet or other space debris. But this new mineral, a manganese silicide which has been named “Brownleeite,” was discovered within an interplanetary dust particle, or IDP, that appears to have originated from comet 26P/Grigg-Skjellerup. The comet was discovered in 1902 and reappears every 5 years. A new method of collecting IDPs was suggested by space scientist Scott Messenger, from Johnson Space Center. He predicted comet 26P/Grigg-Skjellerup was a source of dust grains that could be captured in Earth’s stratosphere at a specific time of the year.

In response to his prediction, NASA performed stratospheric dust collections, using an ER-2 high-altitude aircraft flown from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The aircraft collected IDPs from this particular comet stream in April 2003. The new mineral was found in one of the particles. To determine the mineral’s origin and examine other dust materials, a powerful new transmission electron microscope was installed in 2005 at Johnson.

“When I saw this mineral for the first time, I immediately knew this was something no one had seen before,” said Keiko Nakamura-Messenger, also from Johnson Space Center. “But it took several more months to obtain conclusive data because these mineral grains were only 1/10,000 of an inch in size.”

“Because of their exceedingly tiny size, we had to use state-of-the-art nano-analysis techniques in the microscope to measure the chemical composition and crystal structure of Keiko’s new mineral,” said Lindsay Keller, Johnson space scientist and a co-discoverer of the new mineral. “This is a highly unusual material that has not been predicted either to be a cometary component or to have formed by condensation in the solar nebula.”

The mineral was surrounded by multiple layers of other minerals that also have been reported only in extraterrestrial rocks. There have been 4,324 minerals identified by the International Mineralogical Association, or IMA. This find adds one more mineral to that list.

Brownleeite, is named after Donald E. Brownlee, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, Seattle. Brownlee founded the field of IDP research. The understanding of the early solar system established from IDP studies would not exist without his efforts. Brownlee also is the principal investigator of NASA’s Stardust mission.

Brownlee says he’s always been intrigued by minerals and now “it’s great to be one.”

Original News Source: PhysOrg, AP

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Sili June 12, 2008 at 4:27 PM

Random claim to fame: I grew up in the village neighbouring Sk(j)ellerup; we shared a parish church.

Chuck Lam June 13, 2008 at 4:54 AM

Hmm! Wonder if this Brownleeite is MnSi2 or MnSi1.73.

neoguru June 13, 2008 at 5:45 AM

Chuck Lam: It could be almost any combination of Manganese (Mn) and Silicon (Si). Both Silicon and particularly Manganese have multiple oxidation states. My guess: MnSi.

Eric June 13, 2008 at 10:33 AM

Do we inhale these particles?

Quantum_Flux June 13, 2008 at 11:49 PM

[Mn4+] + [Si4-] –> MnSi

Mark Yannone June 16, 2008 at 10:21 PM

“But it took several more months to obtain conclusive data because these mineral grains were only 1/10,000 of an inch in size.”

Scientists don’t speak like this.

sorciere September 15, 2008 at 1:47 PM

cool! a new mineral from the sky,maybe it’s good for us,what to say more,we need to know what appening every one have to take care of is planet and discovering the sky
from we came from.let go scientifics you are the best .i whant to belive

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