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A High-Altitude Dust Particle and the Origin of Everything

Around four and a half billion years ago, a giant cloud of gaseous matter in our neck of space began to come together thanks to the gravitational attraction between matter. Over billions of years, this matter began to form our Sun, the planets, and all of the other various bodies that make up our Solar System. At least that’s how the nebular hypothesis, as it’s known, describes the origins of our cosmic home. That hypothesis was first put forward in the 18th century by Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and is still considered to be the best working theory we have as to how all the stuff out there in space came to be after the Big Bang – or whatever may have put it there.

HL Tauri, a protoplanetary disc some 450 light-years from Earth.

HL Tauri, a protoplanetary disc some 450 light-years from Earth.

That nebular hypothesis is backed up by our modern observations of how matter behaves and bodies form in space, but it’s rare that scientists are ever given concrete evidence of this early stage of our Solar System’s formation. However, a groundbreaking new study claims to have finally discovered a piece of the matter that would eventually form our Solar System. A high-altitude NASA aircraft collected a cometary interplanetary dust particle floating around in the stratosphere, and researchers believe this particle could be among the very first solid particles of matter in our Solar System. Is this a glimpse into the “star stuff” we’re all made of?

The research was led by University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa School scientist Hope Ishii. Using transmission electron microscopy, Ishii and her team found that the chemical composition of this particle formed in the cold, radiation-rich nebula which would eventually become our Solar System:

Our observations suggest that these exotic grains represent surviving pre-solar interstellar dust that formed the very building blocks of planets and stars. If we have at our fingertips the starting materials of planet formation from 4.6 billion years ago, that is thrilling and makes possible a deeper understanding of the processes that formed and have since altered them. This is an example of research that seeks to satisfy the human urge to understand our world’s origins.

Could a study of these early particles actually reveal much about our cosmic origins, though? Sure, discovering early solid particles is a fascinating glimpse into the early Solar System, but many people (myself included) aren’t content with understanding the chemical and physical mechanics of how gaseous matter eventually accreted into planets. Where did those gases come from? What caused the Big Bang? Why don’t hot dogs and hot dog buns come in packages of equal quantity?

The higher mysteries.

The real higher mysteries.

Ultimately, we might never be able to get to the bottom of these deeper questions, no matter how many specks of unbelievably ancient stardust we find. Still, it’s a start.

Science on, wonderful nerds, science on.