Tiny crystals in meteorite dust.

A close-up image of one of the new crystals taken using an electron microscope. (Image credit: Taskaev et al.)

There are never before-seen types of crystal hidden in perfectly preserved meteorite dust. Nine years ago, a huge space rock exploded over Chelyabinsk, leaving a trail of dust.

An asteroid measuring 59 feet (18 meters) across and weighing 12,125 tons entered Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 41,600 mph. The city of Chelyabinsk in southern Russia was spared a huge collision with the surface when a meteorite exploded above it. The event was described as a major wake-up call by experts.

The Chelyabinsk explosion was the largest of its kind in the last century. NASA says it exploded with a force 30 times greater than the atomic bomb. Video footage of the event showed the space rock burning up in a flash of light that was briefly brighter than the sun, before creating a powerful sonic boom that broke glass, damaged buildings and injured over a thousand people in the city below.

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Researchers analyzed some of the tiny pieces of space rock that were left behind after a meteorite exploded. Normally, meteorites produce a small amount of dust as they burn up, but the tiny grains are lost to scientists because they are either too small to find or contaminated by the environment. After the Chelyabinsk meteorite exploded, there was a huge cloud of dust in the atmosphere for more than four days. Scientists were able to recover some dust samples after the event because of the layers of snow that fell.

The new types of crystal were discovered by the researchers while they were looking at the dust under a microscope. One team member peered through the eyepiece and saw that one of the tiny structures was in focus at the center of one of the slides. The team would have missed it if it had been elsewhere.

After analyzing the dust with more powerful electron microscopes, they found many more of the crystals. The researchers wrote in their paper that it was difficult to find the crystals using an electron microscope because of their small size.

computer visualization of dust in the atmosphere.

A computer model showing a massive cloud of dust in the atmosphere leftover from the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion in 2013. (Image credit: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio)
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The new crystals came in two different shapes; quasi-spherical, or almost spherical, shells and hexagonal rods.

The X-rays showed that the crystals were made of layers of carbon made from sheets of atoms, similar to the way pencils are made. Buckminsterfullerene, a cage-like ball of carbon atoms, is the most likely candidate for these nanoclusters according to the researchers.

The team believes that the crystals formed in the high- temperature and high-pressure conditions created by the meteorite. Scientists hope to track down other samples of meteorite dust from other space rocks to see if they are related to the Chelyabinsk meteorite explosion.

The original article was published on Live Science.