A detector on the NASA probe circling Saturn has gathered a rare sample of interstellar dust from a galaxy far, far away.
Scientists working with the Cassini space probe have made a stunning discovery. According to a report from Science Daily, an instrument on the probe called the cosmic dust analyzer, or CDA, has gathered a sample of a number of rare microscopic particles that originated from stars far beyond our own solar system.
Scientists from Heidelberg University analyzed the composition of the dust and were surprised to find that it consisted of gasses like helium as well as a number of heavy metals. Heidelberg earth scientist Dr. Mario Trieloff says that these miniscule particles are the raw materials that compose the Earth and other Earth-like planets.
The finding is a rare opportunity to analyze particles from the depths of outer space. Typically, astronomers need to rely on the numerous space probes patrolling our solar system to intercept these roaming interstellar dust particles. The CDA fixed to the Cassini space probe is equipped with a mass spectrometer that analyzes dust on the spot and sends the data back to earth.
The finding marks the first time astronomers can read data from a “statistically significant” sample of the rare interstellar dust particles. According to Dr. Frank Postberg, “The result of the measurements was truly amazing. The 36 particles of interstellar origin, that are very similar in their composition, contain a mix of the most important rock-forming elements – magnesium, iron, silicon and calcium – in average cosmic abundance.”
Dr. Postberg explains that though a single dust particle weighs less than one trillionth of a gram, they contain “the whole element mix of the cosmos.” The only elements missing from the sample, he said, were highly volatile gases that exist under extraordinary conditions.
The finding is fascinating because it reveals that the dust was likely homogenized to the composition of stellar dust we might find in our own cosmic backyard. It affirms the idea that the building blocks of matter are more or less the same no matter where in the universe our travels may take us.
A press release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory describing the details of the study can be found here.