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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Cosmology & Astronomy

Catching Stardust Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System

Popular Science
By: Natalie Starkey(Author)
264 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos
An excellent piece of popular science, Catching Stardust champions the relevance of research on comets and asteroids, whether as frozen time capsules or future mining quarries.
Catching Stardust
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  • Catching Stardust ISBN: 9781472944009 Hardback Mar 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
Price: £16.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Icy, rocky, sometimes dusty, always mysterious – comets and asteroids are among the Solar System's very oldest inhabitants, formed within a swirling cloud of gas and dust in the area of space that eventually hosted the Sun and its planets. Locked within each of these extra-terrestrial objects is the 4.6-billion-year wisdom of Solar System events, and by studying them at close quarters using spacecraft we can coerce them into revealing their closely-guarded secrets. This offers us the chance to answer some fundamental questions about our planet and its inhabitants.

Exploring comets and asteroids also allows us to shape the story of Earth's future, enabling us to protect our precious planet from the threat of a catastrophic impact from space, and maybe to even recover valuable raw materials from them. This cosmic bounty could be as useful in space as it is on Earth, providing the necessary fuel and supplies for humans as they voyage into deep space to explore more distant locations within the Solar System.

Catching Stardust tells the story of these enigmatic celestial objects, revealing how scientists are using them to help understand a crucial time in our history – the birth of the Solar System, and everything contained within it.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Comets and asteroids have found a new spokeswoman
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 1 May 2019 Written for Hardback

    Asteroids and comets have a bad reputation. Looking back over the books I have reviewed, they usually come up in the context of impact and destruction. But there are other important reasons to study them and geologist and cosmochemist Natalie Starkey here steps up as their enthusiastic spokeswoman. Whether as frozen time capsules, possible vehicles dispersing the basic chemicals required for life, or even future mining quarries, Catching Stardust champions the importance of scientific research on these celestial objects.

    Astronomers largely agree on how our Solar System formed, and Starkey runs the reader through the basics of the nebular hypothesis: giant gas clouds condensing and contracting to form nascent stars with protoplanetary discs of dust swirling around them that start to congeal into planets. Plate tectonics on Earth has erased most traces of our planet’s very deep history and only a few places, such as Greenland, host rocks older than 3 billion years (see my review of A Wilder Time). The beauty of nearby comets is that they are effectively 4.6 billion-year-old frozen time capsules of the early nebular cloud from which our Solar System formed.

    But what of asteroids? After reviewing Cosmic Impact, I complained being left puzzled by what the differences are between the two. Starkey here takes a bit more space to explain it all. The classic model classified comets as fluffy, icy, fragile bodies that would have formed in the cold reaches of outer space, and asteroids as hard, dry, solid objects that would have formed closer to the Sun. But data from recent space missions shows that this neat dichotomy is not the whole story, and there is a spectrum of chemical and structural compositions possible in between these two extremes. Further complications arise from models suggesting that the early Solar System saw some dramatic rearrangements of planetary orbits, with the contents of the distant Oort Cloud possibly having formed closer to the Sun than the currently closer Kuiper Belt. As Starkey is keen to point out, there are still many, many unresolved questions here.

    Catching Stardust is largely a book of the how and the why of studying space rocks and alternates between these questions. Other than Solar System formation, there is also the question of how Earth formed, where its water came from, and whether comets and asteroids seeded our planet with the chemical precursors of life. Although hydrogen and carbon are found throughout space, I was fascinated to learn that amino acids, one of life’s basic building blocks, are too. But there remain interesting questions. Why do lifeforms only use one variant of amino acids (the left-handed one)? And do comets and asteroids contain equal mixtures of both, as you might expect, or not? (There is titillating evidence they don’t.)

    Throughout these chapters, Starkey gently introduces the reader to the more complicated underlying scientific concepts. Whether isotopes, why isotope ratios of hydrogen and deuterium (a slightly heavier variant of hydrogen) matter and what they reveal about the origin of water, or the chirality of amino acids (the left- or right-handedness I mentioned just now) – she is an enthusiastic communicator with a knack for keeping the reader both informed and entertained.

    Equally fascinating is the how. The easiest way to study asteroids and comets is to start right here on Earth with meteorites. But scientists are also studying much smaller interplanetary dust particles gathered from our planet’s stratosphere. What is really pushing the envelope technically is to study comets and asteroids in situ, in space. The Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which had a very unexpected shape, captured the public imagination, and was well publicised by the European Space Agency. Starkey takes the reader through the trials and tribulations of this mission but is equally infectious about NASA’s Stardust mission. And she shortly details other missions, less well known outside of the circles of astronomy-aficionados.

    What I really appreciated here was that Starkey gave very clear-cut reasons for why we mount such expensive and high-risk missions where much can go wrong. We cannot really send sensitive scientific instruments that need careful calibration and constant human attention into space unattended, so there is a really good reason to try and develop missions that can return samples to Earth, as has been done a few times now. But it also forces us to develop new technologies so that the instruments we do send out can operate remotely in the harsh conditions of outer space. There have been some real boons and bonuses as a consequence of developing new technology detailed here. Who would have thought there could be a link between spacecraft technology, bedbugs and perfume?

    The final two topics Starkey tackles are space mining and, of course, the threat of impact and countermeasures. I always thought of the former as sci-fi, but Starkey takes this topic very seriously, giving a clear overview of how it could be done and what the hurdles are. With rare earth elements being uneconomical to extract and humanity’s high-tech society being very dependent on them (see The Elements of Power), I am starting to see why there is such interest in this. Starkey describes how it could even be the stepping stone for expanding out into space.

    The danger of impact was recently discussed in my review of Cosmic Impact and is not the focus of this book. Starkey nevertheless does not ignore the topic altogether and gives a very good overview of the inevitability of impact in the long run, the consequences for life, recent examples such as the Tunguska Event and the Chelyabinsk meteor, and the various strategies we could employ to counter this threat.

    The highlight of Catching Stardust for me was how Starkey champions the relevance of scientific research, and the wider, real-world benefits “astronomers-having-fun” brings. Since she is a host on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio podcast, you might have already guessed Starkey is a good science communicator. And she brings this flair to what is, unbelievably, only her first book. Another excellent addition to the Bloomsbury Sigma imprint and a great example of well-written popular science.
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Natalie Starkey is a geologist and cosmochemist. Following a PhD at Edinburgh University studying the geochemistry of Arctic volcanoes, Natalie's post-doctoral work at The Open University shifted her research focus to comet and asteroid samples. It was at this time she got the chance to analyse samples returned by the NASA Stardust and JAXA Hayabusa space missions. Natalie's passion for her research makes her a keen science communicator. She received a British Science Association Media Fellowship in 2013, and regularly appears on television and radio internationally, as well as being a science host on Neil deGrasse Tyson's popular StarTalk Radio. Her writing includes numerous articles for the Guardian, and she is a regular contributor to The Conversation website.

Popular Science
By: Natalie Starkey(Author)
264 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos
An excellent piece of popular science, Catching Stardust champions the relevance of research on comets and asteroids, whether as frozen time capsules or future mining quarries.
Media reviews

"Well presented and bridges many gaps between different observational methods."

"Astonishing [...] a promising debut"
New Scientist

"Natalie Starkey has packed this book full of information on the minor bodies of our solar system, which are key to understanding how things got the way they are today – a must-have for anyone interested in where we came from."
– Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta Project Scientist

"Catching Stardust builds a strong case for why continuing to explore comets and asteroids is so important to understanding our past and in shaping our future."
– Jessica Sunshine, Professor of Astronomy, University of Maryland

"An action-packed narrative that really draws in the reader to the thrills and challenged of exploring the true nature of our Solar System."
– Lucy McFadden, Emerita at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre

"A fast-paced journey through time and space under the enthusiastic guidance of space geologist Natalie Starkey. Highly recommended."
– Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary Sciences at The Open University

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