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'Cosmic barometer' of heat, pressure could reveal universe's violent past

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Scientists say a "cosmic barometer" could seek out ancient evidence of regions of high pressure and extreme heat created by exploding stars and cosmic impacts of meteorites and comets in our universe's violent past.

Small samples of organic matter thrown out into space by dying stars could show evidence of heat and pressure they've experienced, researchers at Imperial College London say.

After making long journeys across the cosmos, an aromatic hydrocarbon known as dimethylnaphthalene, often found in meteorites, can be studied to reveal and identify events of cosmic violence in the universe's history.

"The ability to detect high pressure environments in space has tremendous implications for our ability to learn more about the formation of our solar system and the universe," earth science Professor Wren Montgomery says.

"Dimethylnaphthalenes are like microscopic barometers and thermometers recording changes in pressure and heat as they travel through space," she says. "Understanding these changes lets us probe their history, and with that, the history of the galaxy."

In an experiment, the scientists placed a dimethylnaphthalene sample now wider than a human hair in between two anvils constructed of diamonds of gem quality.

The samples were squeezed until they experienced the levels of pressure dimethylnaphthalene might undergo in space and the alterations to their molecular structure caused by such pressure was determined.

The findings will allow scientists to conduct more comprehensive analysis of other organic materials arriving on Earth from outer space, the researchers said, since dimethylnaphthalene are not always to be found in meteorite samples.

That makes it imperative to create a full catalogue of aromatic hydrocarbons and their reactions to temperature and pressures to extend our understanding of extreme events in the universe, they said.

Such a catalog, applied to future samples, would let researchers identify molecular markers found within that would be evidence of specific pressure ranges, indicating the kinds of violent processes a sample could have experienced millions or even billions of years in the past before arriving at earth, the researchers said.

"We now have another instrument to add to our celestial toolbox, which will help us to learn more about high pressure environments in space," study co-author Mark Sephton says.

"Massive heat and pressure waves arcing out through space from cataclysmic events leave an indelible record in these cosmic barometers," he says. "It is really exciting to know that we now have a technique at our disposal that will help to reveal pivotal moments in the universe's history."

The study has been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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