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Oldest material known to exist on Earth discovered — around 7.5 billion years old

The Murchison meteorite fell to Earth in 1969

Oldest material known to exist on Earth discovered — around 7.5 billion years old

Scientists analysing a meteorite have discovered the oldest material known to exist on Earth.

A team of researchers from the US and Switzerland analysed 40 pre-solar grains contained in a portion of the Murchison meteorite, that fell in Australia in 1969.

They found dust grains within the space rock – which fell to Earth in the 1960s – that are as much as 7.5 billion years old.

The oldest of the dust grains were formed in stars that roared to life long before our Solar System was born.

When stars die, particles formed within them are flung out into space. These “pre-solar grains” then get incorporated into new stars, planets, moons and meteorites.

“They’re solid samples of stars, real stardust,” said lead author Philipp Heck, a curator at Chicago’s Field Museum and associate professor at the University of Chicago.

“It starts with crushing fragments of the meteorite down into a powder,” said co-author Jennika Greer, from the Field Museum and the University of Chicago.

“Once all the pieces are segregated, it’s a kind of paste, and it has a pungent characteristic – it smells like rotten peanut butter.”

This whiffy paste was then dissolved in acid, leaving only the stardust.

“It’s like burning down the haystack to find the needle,” said Philipp Heck.

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To work out how old the grains were, the researchers measured how long they had been exposed to cosmic rays in space. These rays are high-energy particles that travel through our galaxy and penetrate solid matter.

Some of these rays interact with the matter they encounter and form new elements. The longer they are exposed, the more of these elements form. The researchers used a particular form (isotope) of the element neon – Ne-21 – to date the grains.

“I compare this with putting out a bucket in a rainstorm. Assuming the rainfall is constant, the amount of water that accumulates in the bucket tells you how long it was exposed,” said Dr Heck.

Measuring how many of the new elements are present tells scientists how long the grain was exposed to cosmic rays. This in turn informs them how old it is.

Some of the pre-solar grains turned out to be the oldest ever discovered.

Based on how many cosmic rays had interacted with the grains, most had to be 4.6-4.9 billion years old. For comparison, the Sun is 4.6 billion years old and the Earth is 4.5 billion.

However, the oldest yielded a date of around 7.5 billion years old. [BBC]

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