On February 15, 2013, at 09:20 local time, a meteoroid entered the atmosphere releasing the energy equivalent to 30 Hiroshima bombs, crossed several Russian provinces and crashed with its 6,000 kilos of material 80 kilometers from the city from Chelyabinsk, south of the Urals. What we did not know is that this racing car was going to be full of surprises.
The first stroke of luck. Many things are lost when a meteor enters the atmosphere, including “meteor dust” that forms on the surface when it is exposed to high temperatures and intense pressures. If it does not disappear shortly after entry or falls into the sea, the suspended dust usually mixes with the surrounding atmosphere and, subject to the usual meteorological dynamics, disperses without being able to locate it.
In Chelyabinsk we were lucky and the atmospheric stability (and the snow!) that followed the impact allowed the dust to settle in the area. It is something so rare that it is being studied exhaustively and, in fact, the surprises are being great: the European Physics Review Plus has just published a paper according to which carbon microcrystals with an extremely unusual shape have just been discovered.
The second stroke of luck. Because the researchers were analyzing the dust under a microscope without having the necessary technology to locate these types of crystals. It was by chance that, in the middle of manipulation, one of those crystals was located exactly in the center of one of the slides that they were using. If that chance didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have found them. That yes, once identified, that “something strange” they pulled the thread that finally led them to find some pieces with “unique morphological peculiarities”.
As explained, when looking at them through the electron microscope, they saw crystals forming quasi-spherical closed layers and hexagonal rods, something very unusual. Further analysis using X-ray spectroscopy and crystallography showed that the carbon crystals were actually graphite structures with exotic shapes.
Rare crystals and a promise. These structures are probably the product of repeatedly adding layers of graphene to closed carbon cores. The researchers believe that these ‘closed cores’ can only be two: either buckminsterfullerene (a spherical, cage-shaped molecule containing 60 carbon atoms) or polyhexacyclooctadecane (C18H12), a molecule made up of hydrogen and carbon. The truth, however, is that it doesn’t matter.
The discovery of these never-before-seen crystals in the Chelyabinsk fireball reminds us that outer space is full of materials, structures and possibilities that we have not yet been able to even imagine. There is more and more talk of space mining and the unique impact of aeronautical exploration. However, we usually talk about what we know, what we know how to identify. The Chelyabinsk fireball tells us, clearly, that when we open the door of space… anything can enter.
Imagen | Tasos Mansour
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