It Turns Out Cosmic Dust Is Everywhere

An amateur scientist reveals that cosmic debris from space is all over the place.

Up there!
Image source: djero.adlibeshe yahoo.com/Shutterstock

Who among us doesn't thrill to catch a glimpse of a meteorite streaking across the night sky? Except for a few colorful cases — a living room in Connecticut, an explosion in the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia — these beauties disappear into our atmosphere. They're just a small fraction of the objects that hit the earth — scientists estimate that some 4,000 tons of them arrive yearly. Some are so tiny they don't even fall: They just float down. So where is all this stuff? Researchers have found micrometeorites — which are typically smaller than width of a human hair — in Antarctica and other remote locations. Now a new picture book, In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters, reveals that, really, it's everywhere.

The author of the book, amateur scientist Jon Larsen, has coauthored an article in Geology with Imperial College earth and planetary science lecturer Matthew J. Genge and two of his students, Martin D. Suttle of Imperial College and Matthias Van Ginneken of the Université Libre in Brussels. In the article, they reveal that this “cosmic dust" can be found most anywhere — most of the photos in the book come from flecks collected from house gutters in Norway. The cosmic stuff is so ubiquitous that we probably eat it in our salads all the time.

The article and book are the products of Larsen's Project Stardust. It began, he tells the New York Times, when he noticed something sparkling on an outdoor table he was cleaning off: “It was blinking in the sunlight. It was angular in some way, kind of metallic but so small — a tiny dot." The fleck intrigued him and, suspecting it came from the sky, he started collecting all sorts of stuff he thought that might be extraterrestrial. Larsen is a successful jazz guitarist, and so he had ample opportunity to take samples in all sorts of places during his travels: roads, parking lots, grooves, drains, gutters, and park benches. “Still, I didn't find a single micrometeorite" — including that original tabletop fleck — “It was very frustrating."

He decided to approach his search from the opposite direction. Instead of trying to identify bits from space, he would instead teach himself to recognize the terrestrial source of all the samples he collected. He could reasonably assume that anything left over might actually be a decent space-debris candidate.

About two years ago, Genge was able to confirm that a speck Larsen had collected from Norway was indeed space dust. That was all it took: “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere." Larsen views his process as ““something that anybody can do. It could and should become part of teachings in schools, an aspect of citizen science." The key is knowing what to look for.

The paper's conclusions are being endorsed by astronomers such as University of Washington astronomer Donald E. Brownlee, and by extraterrestrial materials scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston Michael E. Zolensky, who found some space particles on the roof of a building containing moon rocks with Larsen. “It was pretty cool," Dr. Zolensky told the Times. “The curation building is now a collector of cosmic dust."

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

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Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
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Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

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