Scientists have decided that two mysterious explosions in the 1990s were caused by mysterious tiny particles from space. The two objects were picked up by earthquake detectors as they tore through Earth at up to 900,000 mph. According to scientists, they were “strangelets,” which are clumps of matter that have so far defied detection.
Formed in the Big Bang and inside extremely dense stars, strangelets are thought to be made from quarks, the subatomic particles found inside protons and neutrons. Researchers think they have many unusual properties, including a density about ten million million times greater than lead. Just a single pollen-size fragment is believed to weigh several tons. They are thought to be extremely stable, traveling through the galaxy at speeds of about a million miles per hour. Until now, all attempts to detect them have failed. A team of American scientists believes, however, that it may have found the first hard evidence for their existence, after looking through earthquake records for signs of their impact with Earth.
The team, from the Southern Methodist University in Texas, analyzed more than a million earthquake reports, looking for signs of strangelets hitting Earth. While their very high speed gives strangelets a huge amount of energy, their tiny size means that any effects will be extremely localized, and there is unlikely to be a blast big enough to have widespread effects on the Earth?s surface.
The scientists looked for events producing two sharp signals, one as it entered Earth, the other as it emerged again. They found two such events, both in 1993. The first was on the morning of October 22. Seismometers in Turkey and Bolivia recorded a violent event in Antarctica with the power of several thousand tons of TNT. The disturbance then ripped through Earth on a route that ended with it exiting through the floor of the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka just 26 seconds later – at a speed of 900,000 mph.
The second event took place on November 24, when sensors in Australia and Bolivia picked up an explosion starting in the Pacific south of the Pitcairn Islands, traveling through the Earth, and reappearing in Antarctica 19 seconds later.
According to the scientists, both events are consistent with an impact with strangelets at cosmic speeds. The team of geologists and physicists says, “The only explanation for such events of which we are aware is passage through the earth of ton-sized strange-quark nuggets.”
Professor Eugene Herrin, a member of the team, says that two strangelets just one-tenth the width of a hair could account for the observations. “These things are extremely dense and travel at 40 times the speed of sound straight through the Earth – they’d hardly slow down as they went through,” he says.
The discovery of strangelets may solve several long-standing mysteries, including the nature of “dark matter”, which astronomers say makes up more than 90 per cent of our galaxy. Strangelets may account for much of this invisible matter.
Despite their force, the impact of strangelets on an inhabited area would probably be less than that of a meteor. Herrin says, “It’s very hard to determine what the effect would be. There would probably be a tiny crater but it would be virtually impossible to find anything.”
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