At high altitudes, most dust in the atmosphere comes from space, rather than the Earth's surface. Thousands of tons of interplanetary dust particles (IDPs) enter the atmosphere each year. "We've known that many IDPs come from comets, but we've never been able to definitively tie a single IDP to a particular comet," says study coauthor Larry Nittler, of Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. "The only known cometary samples we've studied in the laboratory are those that were returned from comet 81P/Wild 2 by the Stardust mission." The Stardust mission used a NASA-launched spacecraft to collect samples of comet dust, returning to Earth in 2006.
Comets are thought to be repositories of primitive, unaltered matter left over from the formation of the solar system. Material held for eons in cometary ice has largely escaped the heating and chemical processing that has affected other bodies, such as the planets. However, the Wild 2 dust returned by the Stardust mission included more altered material than expected, indicating that not all cometary material is highly primitive.
"What we found is that they are very different from typical IDPs" says Nittler. "They are more primitive, with higher abundances of material whose origin predates the formation of the solar system." The distinctiveness of the particles, plus the timing of their collection after the Earth's passing through the comet trail, point to their source being the Gregg-Skjellerup comet.
"This is exciting because it allows us to compare on a microscopic scale in the laboratory dust particles from different comets," says Nittler. "We can use them as tracers for different processes that occurred in the solar system four-and-a-half billion years ago."
The biggest surprise for the researchers was the abundance of so-called presolar grains in the dust sample. Presolar grains are tiny dust particles that formed in previous generations of stars and in supernova explosions before the formation of the solar system. Afterwards, they were trapped in our solar system as it was forming and are found today in meteorites and in IDPs. Presolar grains are identified by having extremely unusual isotopic compositions compared to anything else in the solar system. But presolar grains are generally extremely rare, with abundances of just a few parts per million in even the most primitive meteorites, and a few hundred parts per million in IDPs.
Also surprising is the comparison with the samples from Wild 2 collected by the Stardust mission. "Our samples seem to be much more primitive, much less processed, than the samples from Wild 2," says Nittler, "which might indicate that there is a huge diversity in the degree of processing of materials in different comets."
This work was supported by NASA's Cosmochemistry (NNG004GF61G) and Origins of the Solar System (NNX07AJ71G) programs, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), the Office of Naval Research and the Office of Basic Energy Sciences of the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231. The NASA Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office provided the IDPs for the research.
Ref: Busemann, H., et al., Ultra-primitive interplanetary dust particles from the comet 26P/Grigg–Skjellerup dust stream collection, Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. (2009), doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2009.09.007