New Delhi: Stretching for eight miles and forming a part of the English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France, the White Cliffs of Dover are considered symbolic in Britain, because they face towards continental Europe across the narrowest part of the English Channel, where invasions have historically threatened and against which the cliffs form a symbolic guard.
Who would have wondered that the iconic cliffs could also be holding clues to the early solar system too? You heard that right!
Scientists have discovered that the cliffs contain the fossilised remains of cosmic dust that may provide insights into the early solar system.
Researchers from the Imperial College London in the UK also discovered a way to determine if the cosmic dust was clay-rich.
Clays can only form if water is present, so a method for determining clay content could act like a cosmic divining rod for determining the presence of water rich asteroids in our solar system.
"The iconic white cliffs of Dover are an important source of fossilised creatures that help us to determine the changes and upheavals the planet has undergone many millions of years ago," said Martin Suttle, a research postgraduate at Imperial College London.
"It is so exciting because we've now discovered that fossilised space dust is entombed alongside these creatures, which can also provide us with information about what was happening in our solar system at the time," said Suttle, lead author of the study published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
"In the distant future, asteroids could provide human space explorers with valuable stop offs during long voyages," said Matt Genge, from the College's Department of Earth Science and Engineering.
"Being able to source water is vital because it can be used to drink, to make oxygen and even fuel to power spacecraft," said Genge.
"The relevance of our study is that cosmic dust particles that land on Earth could ultimately be used to trace where these water-rich asteroids may be, providing a valuable tool for mapping this resource," he added.
Cosmic dust has been previously found in rocks up to 2.7 billion years old. However, until now only cosmic dust that was very well preserved could be studied by researchers.
The significance of the their new study is that less well preserved fossilised cosmic dust can now also be located and examined in detail, said Suttle.
In geological terms, pristine cosmic dust particles are a relatively recent record of events in the solar system.
Now that researchers have located a new source of cosmic dust, which is much older, the team said that it could help them to understand events beyond Earth such as major collisions between asteroids, which have occurred much earlier, perhaps even around 98 million years ago ? a time when cosmic dust records have been difficult to unearth.
(With PTI inputs)