Monday, April 8

In search of micrometeorites in Extremadura

In Extremadura there are three people who are looking for micrometeorites, tiny particles that fall to Earth with which the Solar System can be studied. It sounds like a story from another planet, but all you have to do is go to the Faculty of Physics of the University of Extremadura to find José Manuel Vaquero, María Cruz Gallego and Irene Tovar.

They are the creators of a simple, low-cost invention that allows these types of particles to be collected for later study. They have developed a utility model called ‘micrometeorite recovery device’ that has already passed through the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office.

It is a telescopic type stick, which has a tilting head with a magnet with which the collection of micrometeorites is simple.

“This was a crazy idea that occurred to me, that I am a ‘tangle’ and that we have carried out with the resources of the AIRE research group (Physics of the Atmosphere, Climate and Radiation of Extremadura) of the UEx” José Manuel comments.

They are particles that measure 0.2 millimeters and usually accumulate in roof gutters

But what exactly are these three researchers from the Physics Department of the UEx looking for? “These tiny rocks are produced when a body that is in space ‘collides’ with the Earth, enters the atmosphere, begins to rub against its particles, reaches a very high temperature and disintegrates”, explains Vaquero.

In this way, small pieces of rock appear and fall on the roofs and streets. They cannot be seen with the naked eye. They measure between 0.2 and 0.4 millimeters. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, “adds the researcher, who indicates that on a roof, spaces in which they tend to accumulate, a micrometeorite falls for every square meter per year.

The telescopic rod created by UEx researchers to collect micrometeorites. /

C. Moreno

It is difficult to find them. In fact, according to the researchers, until not long ago they were only searched for in remote places without contamination where the particles are trapped, such as in the ice of Antarctica.

However, “for a decade they have realized that they could be found in cities and industrial areas and there are research groups that have managed to catch many micrometeoroids,” says Vaquero.

They have developed a telescopic pole, which has a magnetic head to detect small rocks.

“What we have done has simply been to develop a mechanism to be able to collect these micrometeorites more easily,” he adds.

Then, with the particles they find, they have to analyze them under microscopes to determine if they have really found any micrometeorites. “These small rocks from outer space differ from other particles because, as they pass through the atmosphere, they take on characteristic geometries, usually quite spherical. This allows a first screening to be done by analyzing the shapes, before analyzing the chemical composition and verifying if it really is a micrometeorite”, explain the UEx researchers.

The objective of obtaining this type of samples is mainly scientific. According to Vaquero, they do it to study interplanetary matter. «There is the secret of how the Solar System was born and that for Astrophysics is very interesting».

To this is added another reason that for now seems a bit distant. “It may seem silly, but with all the problems with raw materials, imagine that in the future it would be cheaper to go to space to pick up a meteorite full of interesting metals and bring it to Earth,” explains Vaquero.

At the moment, the AIRE research group has only carried out tests with the new device they have developed. The next step is to find funding to conduct a systematic search and find their first micrometeorite.

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