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Rare Dust Particle from Ancient Extraterrestrial Meteorite Unveils Insights into Stellar Origins

Washington, D.C. and Houston, TXApril 1, 2024. In a groundbreaking discovery published in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal, scientists have identified a rare dust particle lodged within an ancient extraterrestrial meteorite, shedding new light on the origins of stars beyond our solar system.

Image of three­ dimensional 'atom map' Image credit: David Saxey, Geoscience Atom Probe Facility, Curtin University.

Atom probe analysis of a particle formed by a hydrogen burning supernova. This three­ dimensional 'atom map' shows two types of magnesium isotopes detected within the sample, with silicon and oxygen atoms within the particle displayed as smaller spheres. This work relies on the ability of the atom probe to count individual isotope.s of magnesium so that the isotopic ratio can be measured. Image credit: David Saxey, Geoscience Atom Probe Facility, Curtin University. 

Led by Dr. Nicole Nevill of the Universities Space Research Association at LPI, during her Ph.D. studies at Curtin University, the research team meticulously analyzed the dust particle, delving into its atomic composition with unparalleled precision using atom probe tomography. Atom probe tomography is an instrument which breaks samples down to the atomic structure and reconstructs them in 3D resulting in the exact x,y,z coordinates of each atom in the specimen. It measures all ions on the periodic table except noble gases, has sub-nm spatial resolution and a detection limit of 10 ppm. The instrument is very new to the field and Dr. Nevill was among the first to use it for planetary sciences.

"The results were literally off the chart as this was the highest magnesium anomaly ever discovered in a presolar silicate grain,” explains Dr. Nevill. “The results challenge current astrophysical models, indicating processes are occurring in stellar environments we do not yet fully understand."

This extreme magnesium anomaly can currently only be explained by a recently discovered type of star — a hydrogen-burning supernova. As the first known detailed chemical study of a presolar grain from a hydrogen-burning supernova, the results unlocked new insights into hydrogen-burning supernovas and their evolutionary conditions.

Furthermore, this remarkable finding marks the first time presolar silicates have been studied using atom probe tomography, the highest spatial resolution technique in geochemical and geochronological research. The atom probe has expanded the range of measurable isotopes per presolar grain volume and achieves a new level of detail essential for helping us understand how these stars form.

The study, titled Atomic-scale Element and Isotopic Investigation of 25Mg-rich Stardust from a hydrogen-burning Supernova is available online at https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ad2996.



About The Lunar and Planetary Institute 
The Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), operated by Universities Space Research Association, was established during the Apollo program in 1968 to foster international collaboration and to serve as a repository for information gathered during the early years of the space program. Today, the LPI is an intellectual leader in lunar and planetary science. The Institute serves as a scientific forum attracting world-class visiting scientists, postdoctoral fellows, students, and resident experts; supports and serves the research community through newsletters, meetings, and other activities; collects and disseminates planetary data while facilitating the community's access to NASA astromaterials samples and facilities; engages and excites the public about space science and invests in the development of future generations of scientists. The research carried out at the LPI supports NASA's efforts to explore the solar system. More information about LPI is available at www.lpi.usra.edu.

About USRA 
Founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology, and engineering. USRA operates scientific institutes and facilities and conducts other major research and educational programs. An association of 120 university members, it engages the broader university community, employs in-house scientific talent, and offers innovative research, development, and project management expertise.” More information about USRA is available at www.usra.edu.