Scientists Boldly Go on Cathedral Roofs to Collect Cosmic Dust

IN A UNIQUE MISSION, scientists will be visiting some of the highest roofs in the UK in search of cosmic dust.

The team of scientists from the University of Kent will be searching for micrometeorites on the top of Canterbury Cathedral initially.

Micrometeorites are dust-sized particles that continuously rain down on the Earth from space. Analyzing them will help understand the contents and origins of our solar system.

The particles, which are smaller than a few millimetres in diameter, largely come from comets and asteroids. They smash into the Earth’s atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour, and, while many burn up in the process, some melt and resolidify to form tiny, distinctive spheres that are scattered across Earth’s surface.

Collecting Cosmic Dust 

Until recently, these precious particles were found in remote places away from human activity, such as the deep ocean floor and Antarctica.

However, UK cathedral roofs have become a great ‘hunting ground’ for micrometeorites because of their size and inaccessibility, the university’s Space Science department says.

Dr Penny Wozniakiewicz said: “You want the site as undisturbed as possible. The dust is coming in everywhere, but the rooftops offer an opportunity to collect the dust and not have people trampling all over it.”

Another advantage of cathedral roofs is that good records are kept of construction work, so the ages of different sections of roof – and how long they have been gathering dust – is well documented, the lecturer said.

Dr Matthias van Ginneken, who is also creating 3D printed models made from CT scans of the particles added: “While these particles are tiny, their importance is huge. They are useful to get a feel for the number of particles that are arriving at the surface. That can be related back to the number arriving at the top of the atmosphere, so we can learn about the contribution of this material to the Earth.”

The pair are due to return to Canterbury Cathedral in the near future, as well as undertaking a new search at Rochester Cathedral, before moving onto other cathedral sites across the UK.

Dr Wozniakiewicz added: “Fortunately, I’m okay with heights. Once I’m up there I just get on with it and don’t look down.”

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