Rare cosmic gem created by ancient ‘catastrophic collision’, scientists say

Rare cosmic gem created by ancient ‘catastrophic collision’, scientists say

Scientists have discovered that an ancient “catastrophic collision” between a dwarf planet and an asteroid is responsible for creating a rare and mysterious cosmic rock.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that a 4.5-billion-year-old collision created lonsdaleite, a crystal that could potentially be harder than regular diamonds. Its crystal structure is hexagonal, which explains why lonsdaleite is also called “hexagonal diamond”.

Their discovery came from finding the gemstone in urellite meteorites, which according to Space.com are a “rare class of space rock” that scientists believe contain material from the mantle of dwarf plants.

Monash University's Professor Andy Tomkins (left) with RMIT University's PhD Alan Salek hold a specimen of the urelite meteorite at the RMIT Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility.  / Credit: RMIT University

Monash University’s Professor Andy Tomkins (left) with RMIT University’s PhD Alan Salek hold a specimen of the urelite meteorite at the RMIT Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility. / Credit: RMIT University

Scientists used advanced electron microscopy to analyze the meteorites and create snapshots of lonsdaleite and diamond formation.

Dougal McCulloch, director of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said he and his team had found “strong evidence” that the crystal formed in a newly discovered process.

It’s like a “supercritical chemical vapor deposition process,” he said, a process that’s also one way people make lab-grown diamonds. It’s possible that the process took place inside space rocks and “probably on the dwarf planet shortly after a catastrophic collision,” he said.

They predict that lonsdaleite was somewhat replaced by diamonds as its environment cooled and the pressure decreased, the scientists said.

And they didn’t just find the source of the mysterious crystal.

“This study proves unequivocally that lonsdaleite exists in nature,” McCulloch said. “We also discovered the largest lonsdaleite crystals known to date, which are down to a micron in size – much, much finer than a human hair.”

All of this could help pave the way for advances in industrial processes, the team said.

“Nature has thus provided us with a process to try to replicate in industry,” said Monash University geologist and professor Andy Tomkins. “We believe that lonsdaleite could be used to make tiny, extremely hard machine parts if we can develop an industrial process that promotes the replacement of preformed graphite parts by lonsdaleite.”

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