The idea that one of Britain’s oldest cathedrals could help unlock the secrets of life in the solar system may sound far-fetched.
But that’s exactly what scientists are hoping for after embarking on a project to collect alien dust that has fallen on ancient roofs from space.
These particles, which come from comets and meteorites, are expected to hold clues to how life formed on Earth.
A team of experts has drawn up a list of 13 cathedrals that they believe may be ideal locations for recovering micrometeorite samples, starting with Canterbury Cathedral.
Some of the University of Kent researchers have now climbed to the top of the 1,000-year-old building to search for the particles, which are usually only found in places like Antarctica because ordinary terrestrial dust makes them difficult to detect.
Solar System Secrets: A team of planetary experts is collecting extraterrestrial dust in the form of micrometeorites (in a 3D-printed image) from Canterbury Cathedral
Researchers from the University of Kent have now climbed to the top of the 1,000-year-old building to search for the particles.
Cathedral ceilings, however, are ideal places to find cosmic dust due to their size and inaccessibility.
Dr Penny Wozniakiewicz, Senior Lecturer in Space Sciences at the University of Kent, said: ‘Until recently, it was generally considered that trying to look for micrometeorites anywhere other than Antarctica, where we have a really low ground level of ground dust, would be very difficult.
They are coming to Earth in large numbers, so we estimate that between 20,000 and 40,000 tons of extraterrestrial dust arrive every year.
But that extends over the entire surface of the planet.
She added: ‘There have been estimates that anywhere from one to six particles per square meter per year arrive if it is evenly distributed.
‘If you’re lucky, one might hit you, but not hard. When they reach the surface, they are floating down.
“But in places other than Antarctica, we obviously have large amounts of terrestrial dust that we’re producing, and this can be very difficult to search for cosmic dust.”
Dr Matthias van Ginneken, Research Associate at the University of Kent, said: “Micrometeorites are the particles that survive entry into the atmosphere.
‘Most of it burns up on reaching the atmosphere due to collisions with air molecules; they turn into what we call meteoric smoke.
“But micrometeorites range in size from a few tens of microns up to, say, two millimeters.
These particles (pictured), which come from comets and meteorites, are expected to hold clues to how life formed on Earth.
The roofs of cathedrals like the one in Canterbury (pictured) are ideal places to find cosmic dust due to their size and inaccessibility.
“So the very large ones you can see with the naked eye as if you could see a black dot on your finger.”
Once the samples have been collected, the researchers take them back to the lab in an attempt to isolate the cosmic dust from other matter on the ceiling.
Dr van Ginneken added: ‘You take it to the lab and wash the sample because the ceilings are quite dirty. There is a lot of bird poop, for example.
‘Then once it’s clean you can use a microscope and then spend hours and hours looking for spheres.
It is a very long process.
Dr. Wozniakiewicz said scientists often use magnets to help collect micrometeorites.
“A really cool feature of a lot of extraterrestrial dust is that they contain magnetic material within them,” he added.
‘So you can increase your chances of finding a micrometeor by using a magnet to separate the magnetic portion and then search through that.
‘So if you look for the particles that actually went through the atmosphere and melted, they will form very distinctive spheres, very beautiful spheres.
“In short, it is possible to find cosmic particles among the dust on the roofs.”
Discoveries: This image shows the places where cosmic dust was found in the cathedral.
Sampling: Once samples have been collected, researchers take them back to the lab in an attempt to isolate the cosmic dust from other matter on the ceiling.
Dr van Ginneken said the goal of the project was to find clues about how life formed on Earth.
“To make it very simple, let’s say we know that amino acids are the building blocks of life,” he said.
‘They are fairly simple organic molecules; carbon-based molecules that are necessary for life to appear.
‘These molecules were found in meteorites and micrometeorites as well.
“So there is a possibility that the building blocks of life did not appear on Earth, but in space, and then were delivered to the early Earth.”
“And then the presence of water and energy allows these molecules to become more and more complex, eventually leading to the operation of life.”
The team of researchers also obtained permission from several other cathedrals across the country to carry out similar investigations on the ceilings.
Canterbury Cathedral was originally founded in 597, but was later rebuilt between 1070 and 1077, enlarged in the late 12th century, and rebuilt again in the Gothic style after a fire in 1174.
The cathedral became a popular pilgrimage site because of its shrine to Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was assassinated there in 1170.
Explained: The difference between an asteroid, a meteorite and other space rocks
A asteroid it is a large chunk of rock left over from collisions or from the early solar system. Most lie between Mars and Jupiter in the Main Belt.
TO kite it is a rock covered in ice, methane and other compounds. Their orbits take them much further out of the solar system.
TO meteorite it’s what astronomers call a flash of light in the atmosphere when debris burns up.
This debris itself is known as meteoroid. Most are so small that they evaporate into the atmosphere.
If any of these meteoroids reach Earth, it is called meteorite.
Meteors, meteoroids, and meteorites typically originate from asteroids and comets.
For example, if Earth passes through the tail of a comet, much of the debris burns up in the atmosphere and forms a meteor shower.