Experts were left stunned when they found a piece of stardust which is more than half the age of the Universe on Earth which could hold the answers to star and planet formation. The stardust was transported to Earth on a meteor 50 years ago and was discovered in Australia. The materials are known as presolar grains-minerals, which apparently smell like “rotten peanut butter”, that formed before the Sun came to be, making them “time capsules” of the Universe.

Experts from Chicago were able to determine the stardust’s age by examining cosmic rays.

They proved to be up to 7.5 billion years old, making the Sun (4.6 billion years old) and Earth (4.5 billion years old) look like babies.

Co-author Jennika Greer, from the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, said: “It starts with crushing fragments of the meteorite down into a powder.

“Once all the pieces are segregated, it’s a kind of paste, and it has a pungent characteristic – it smells like rotten peanut butter.”

The paste was then dissolved in acid, using only stardust.

Philipp Heck, a curator at the Field Museum, associate professor at the University of Chicago, and lead author of a paper describing the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said: “We used exposure age data, which basically measures their exposure to cosmic rays, which are high-energy particles that fly through our galaxy and penetrate solid matter.

“Some of these cosmic rays interact with the matter and form new elements. And the longer they get exposed, the more those elements form.

“I compare this with putting out a bucket in a rainstorm. Assuming the rainfall is constant, the amount of water that accumulates in the bucket tells you how long it was exposed.”

He added that this “is one of the most exciting studies I’ve worked on.

“These are the oldest solid materials ever found, and they tell us about how stars formed in our galaxy.

“They’re solid samples of stars, real stardust.”

The majority of the stardust discovered in the meteor was around 4.9 billion years old, and created when many stars across the Milky Way were beginning to form.

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Prof Heck said: “We have more young grains that we expected.

“Our hypothesis is that the majority of those grains, which are 4.9 to 4.6 billion years old, formed in an episode of enhanced star formation. There was a time before the start of the Solar System when more stars formed than normal.

“Some people think that the star formation rate of the galaxy is constant.

“But thanks to these grains, we now have direct evidence for a period of enhanced star formation in our galaxy seven billion years ago with samples from meteorites. This is one of the key findings of our study.”

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