Who remembers that crackle-popping kids’ confectionary called Space Dust? It ended up being renamed Cosmic Candy after concerned parents complained that its name and powdery appearance were too reminiscent of the illicit drug Angel Dust. One thing it definitely did not resemble was real space dust.
For starters, real space dust doesn’t taste of synthetic orange, cherry or grape (it’s raspberry-flavoured, but that’s another story). Nor does it explode in your mouth – although it’s possible a few of us might’ve unwittingly inhaled it at some point. Because space dust is everywhere, all around us. And we can thank a Norwegian jazz musician for this discovery.
For years, scientists believed these tiny asteroid fragments – also known as micro-meteorites – only fell in remote areas like deserts and Antarctica, until the fateful morning one landed in Jon Larsen’s breakfast as he sat eating on his porch. Having been obsessed with all things geological as a teenager (before music distracted him), Larsen was intrigued by this shiny sky pebble, and immediately hit up Google.
When he learned what it was, his mission was set. About 4,400 tons of micro-meteoric dust enters Earth’s atmosphere every year, and Larsen wanted his share. Since that first close encounter in 2009, he’s collected almost 1,200 samples across four countries.
Usually smaller than a grain of sand, micro-meteorites are easier to miss than the proverbial needle in a haystack. Larsen lugged endless loads of urban dirt – sourced from roof-gutters, roadsides, beaches and other random locations – to his Oslo home for closer investigation, where he’d pass a magnet over his haul and save anything that stuck for washing and viewing through a microscope. About 80% of cosmic dust contains iron, so it was a good start.
Some 40,000 microscopic examinations later, Larsen’s cosmic compendium In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters is the result. Containing 1,500 crystal-clear, massively magnified photos of his celestial specimens (taken with the help of his mineralogist pal Jan Braly Kihly, a tricked-out camera and some extremely nifty post-production techniques), it’s an astronerd’s delight.
Walt Whitman once said that every cubic inch of space was a miracle. Larsen’s unearthly images show us that, in fact, every micrometre is magical.
Photography: Jon Larsen and Jan Braly Kihle