Kent scientists search for cosmic dust at England's oldest Cathedrals

Katherine Moss

Two scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy – Dr Penny Wozniakiewicz and Dr Matthias van Ginneken – have been climbing the roofs of England’s oldest cathedrals to hunt down micrometeorites.

Micrometeorites are dust-sized particles that continuously rain down on the Earth from space and are integral to understanding the contents and origins of our solar system. The particles, which are smaller than a few millimetres  in diameter, largely come from comets and asteroids. They smash into the Earth’s atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour, and, while many burn up in the process, some melt and resolidify to form tiny, distinctive spheres that are scattered across Earth’s surface.

Until recently, these precious particles were found in remote environments away from common human activities that create vast amounts of dust, such as the deep ocean floor and Antarctica. However, UK cathedrals have become a great ‘hunting ground’ for ‘urban’ micrometeorites because of their size and inaccessibility.

On 4 and 5 September, the pair visited the UKs oldest cathedrals – Canterbury and Rochester respectively – to search for samples of cosmic dust.

Dr Matthias van Ginneken on the roof at Rochester Cathedral with Good Morning Britain crew.

Dr Matthias van Ginneken explained: ‘Going on the rooftops of cathedrals was awe-inspiring, combining the highest human achievements with the vastness of the Universe, in the form of particles no bigger than a grain of sand. Hopefully we’ll find examples of freshly arrived micrometeorites – and perhaps some of these may be completely different to the types found so far in other Antarctic collections where, for example, the snow and ice have changed them over time.

The pair will be analysing the samples and sharing their findings, and what these mean for our understanding of the solar system, in the coming months. This includes the creation of more scaled up 3D printings of the micrometeorites they find, thanks to funding from a Royal Astronomical Society outreach grant secure by Dr van Ginneken.

3D printed scaled up models of micrometeorites made by Dr van Ginneken

They also hope to visit more cathedrals around the UK in their search for cosmic dust.

Dr Penny Wozniakiewicz said: ‘We’re delighted to have started our search for urban micrometeorites on the roofs of the UK’s oldest cathedrals, and look forward to sharing these findings with the scientific community and wider public through some out of this world exhibitions. Hopefully this is just the start of an exciting project and we will find more cosmic dust we journey to other historical sites around the country.’