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Learning about the early Solar System from cometary dust

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Samples of comets should retain the best preserved components of Solar System starting materials. Analyses of interplanetary dust particles (IDPs), that are collected in the Earth’s stratosphere and originate primarily from comets, reveal their primitive nature – as evidenced by high presolar grain abundances and primitive carbonaceous material. These primitive features mean that IDPs provide access to samples of the early Solar System from bodies that are hard to access, because of their distance from Earth, and which may have never been sampled by meteorites. As such, IDPs allow us to understand more about the composition of comets, giving us an understanding of how they formed, when and where.

Recently the Rosetta space mission orbited and landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and, although no cometary material will be returned to Earth, we are set to gain new data that will allow us to learn more about the composition of comets. The Rosetta data provides the ground truth for IDP analyses, and will aid our understanding of early Solar System processes, including how water and organic material might have been delivered to Earth.

Dr Natalie Starkey is a postdoctoral researcher at The Open University Planetary and Space Science Department. Natalie studied for an MSci. in Geological Sciences at Durham University and gained her PhD in Geochemistry from University of Edinburgh. She has worked on a range of terrestrial samples including volcanic rocks from the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat and samples of lava flows from the early Iceland plume in Baffin Island and West Greenland. Her recent research focusses primarily on analytical geochemistry of precious comet and asteroid samples. These samples are collected in the Earth’s stratosphere by high altitude NASA aircraft, returned by space missions such as NASA Stardust and JAXA Hayabusa, or collected as meteorites from the Earth’s surface. Chemical and isotopic analyses of these small samples require the use of specialised laboratory instruments such as the NanoSIMS 50L, a laboratory in which she is Deputy Head at The Open University.

In 2013 Natalie became a British Science Association Media Fellow with The Guardian and a BBC woman expert for science. In addition to a fairly extensive outreach programme, she regularly appears on television and radio commenting on space science news stories and she writes for The Conversation website about space science.

This talk is part of the Sedgwick Club talks series.

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