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Cosmic dust found on cathedral roofs

05 April 2024

Jacob Scott

Space dust is collected from the roof of Rochester Cathedral

Space dust is collected from the roof of Rochester Cathedral

A CATHEDRAL roof is the ideal place to find cosmic dust, planetary experts say. Test samples taken from Canterbury and Rochester Cathedrals have so far revealed a rich deposit of micrometeorites.

“It could easily be taken for an April Fool’s hoax, but it’s really not,” the Dean of Rochester, the Very Revd Dr Philip Hesketh, told the Church Times this week. “We had no idea this material was there on our roof, but the original building dates from 604 with further construction in the 12th century; so there must be several centuries of particles and debris along with all the history.”

‘I’ve been up on the roof and got rid of all that dust at last’

A planetary scientist and member of the project team at the University of Kent, Dr Penny Wozniakiewicz, said that the dust was initially collected with a dustpan and brush, but a special vacuum cleaner was now being deployed.

“Cathedrals are large areas,” she said, “and they have been collecting for a long time. Cosmic dust is mixed in with far greater quantities of terrestrial dust, but the proportion that is from space, and the number of different cosmic varieties, is likely to be greater on a cathedral than a house.”

The appeal of cathedrals relates to their roofs’ being large, often inaccessible, and mainly untouched for long periods of time. Cathedral resources can also frequently assist the dating process through consultation of their records and archives.

About 13 cathedrals have been identified for space-dust collection, subject to funding. The research is intended to discover more about how oceans and life are formed on earth. Some samples are already showing grains up to seven billion years old from other solar systems, which entered our own system after its birth 4.6 billion years ago.

It is estimated that more than 100 million meteorite particles land on the planet each year. Dr Matthew Genge, a planetary scientist at Imperial College, London, said that the fragments offered “information about how life and oceans developed on Earth; the asteroids and comets that have produced cosmic dust may have been the building blocks. . . They are everywhere. We will have cosmic dust on our clothes. But also surrounding us are billions of ordinary terrestrial dust particles, making it hard to detect cosmic dust.”

The collection of cosmic dust is only the start of the research process. Scientists have to sift it out from terrestrial material by identifying signs of exposure to radiation from the sun and the rest of the galaxy. The bags of dust first undergo sterilisation to make them safe to work with and ready for the scientific examination of each particle under a sterile microscope.

Dean Hesketh is looking forward to what the research might yield, from Rochester and other cathedrals. “Anything that helps increase our wider understanding of the universe is welcome news, even if the research team does look very funny on the roof of the nave with a vacuum cleaner.”

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