British scientists are scouring cathedral roofs. What are they up to?

Looking for cosmic particles atop centuries-old buildings, of course.
Sejal Sharma
Canterbury Cathedral from above
Canterbury Cathedral from above


Scientists from the University of Kent are roaming the roofs of cathedrals spread across the UK. Why? They're in search of cosmic dust, of course.

Over the next couple of months, the scientists will be on the lookout for dust grains that aggregate into dust particles and have accumulated on the roofs of these centuries-old buildings.

The scientists, Dr. Penny Wozniakiewicz and Dr. Matthias van Ginnekento told The Guardian that they want to understand how much material from space reaches Earth and becomes part of the planet or its atmosphere.

According to NASA, Cosmic dust includes interplanetary dust particles (IDP), particles from comets, asteroids, and other bodies generally smaller than 0.1mm in diameter. IDPs are small and decelerate quickly enough when falling into Earth's atmosphere.

“You want the site as undisturbed as possible,” Wozniakiewicz told The Guardian. “The dust is coming in everywhere, but the rooftops offer an opportunity to collect the dust and not have people trampling all over it.”

But why cathedral roofs?

Size and inaccessibility. These two factors play a role in making the roofs of cathedrals a breeding ground for cosmic dust. “We want to go to these rooftops because the particles we find are so fascinating. They are useful to get a feel for the number of particles that are arriving at the surface. That can be related back to the number arriving at the top of the atmosphere, so we can learn about the contribution of this material to the Earth,” added Wozniakiewicz.

The scientists first plan on visiting the Canterbury Cathedral after a feasibility study found cosmic particles on its roof in a section that had only been replaced two years ago. Wozniakiewicz and Ginnekento will return to Canterbury in the next couple of weeks for more thorough research, after which their next stop will be the Rochester Cathedral.

The roofs are usually at a great height, and the winds and rains, which are a daily feature in the UK, can sweep off much of the cosmic dust from the surface. But another thing that helps the scientists is the good records these churches keep of construction work done inside them. This would help the scientists know the ages of different sections of roofs and for how long they have been gathering dust.

“For the next rooftops, it’s important that we collect everything we can get access to over a specified area,” Wozniakiewicz said. “Fortunately, I’m OK with heights. Once I’m up there I just get on with it and don’t look down.”

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board