The White Cliffs of Dover serve as both a stunning photographic subject and as an iconic British symbol of defense during war. Now they're also a geological museum of sorts: Scientists from Imperial College London have discovered 76 particles of fossilized cosmic dust in the chalky limestone, which could shed light on the earliest days of our solar system. Until this find, only "extraterrestrial" dust that wasn't as structurally well-preserved had been examined, per ScienceAlert's description of the new study in the Earth and Planetary Science Letters journal. Now researchers will have a closer look using this new stockpile, says study lead author Martin Suttle. He adds it will complement valuable info already recovered from other fossils in the cliffs, offering insights into the "changes and upheavals the planet has undergone many millions of years ago."
That's because this newly discovered dust, also called micrometeorites, has been found in abundance and is more or less structurally intact. The dust remained undiscovered in the cliffs for so long because its mineral content was altered during the fossilization process, "masking" what it really was. Meanwhile, a second study by Suttle's team, published in the journal Geology, says they've also figured out how to see if cosmic dust is filled with clay—a technique that could serve as a "cosmic divining rod" to see if there are water-saturated asteroids out there, since clay can only form in environments with water. Once detected, those asteroids could serve as pit stops for future space travelers, with water to drink, as well as for concocting fuel for their spacecraft and oxygen. (A bag of moon dust was worth millions.)