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Smashing into Planets: A Cosmic Shooting Gallery

For his cosmic dust research, a BYU geology graduate was awarded an NSF fellowship and the Geological Society of America’s Stephen E. Dwornik Award.

Terik Daly, a former BYU student in the Department of Geological Sciences, recently received a highly competitive NSF (National Science Foundation) Graduate Research Fellowship as well as the Geological Society of America’s Stephen E. Dwornik Award. Both of these significant awards came as a result of Daly’s research on something very small—dust. Cosmic dust, that is.

“Space is a very dusty place, and the dust that’s out there comes from a variety of sources,” said Daly. “It tells an important story about solar system history and processes. So the goal is to create a tool that we can use to study cosmic dust in the lab.”

According to Daly there are experimental apparatuses available for studying cosmic dust, but their capabilities are limited. At BYU, he worked with chemistry professor Dr. Daniel Austin on overcoming these limitations so that scientists could better understand how the solar system was formed and what has happened since that formation.

Together, Daly and Austin developed a technique to electrically charge mineral grains for acceleration to the high velocities needed for impacts. Daly authored two publications based on this research.

Daly’s studies have evolved since he began his graduate work at Brown University last fall. He’s now looking at what happens to asteroids, comets, and meteorites when they collide with planets (or each other), a process that has been happening all throughout the solar system’s history.

“It’s called impact cratering, and it’s probably the most fundamental process that affects solid objects in solar systems,” said Daly. “This process has been recognized for several decades, but a lot of work still needs to be done to understand what happens to the asteroid, or comet, or meteorite when it hits its target.”

Daly is studying how much of these projectiles survive impact, their physical state, and the physical and chemical mixing that happens during impact.

“For example, if you have an asteroid that has water in it, and you smash that into a planet, how much of that water ends up mixing with the planet and being retained by that body? How does the cosmic shooting gallery that is our solar system—that process of impact—affect the composition of solar system bodies through time?”

Terik Daly’s fascination with impact cratering began in the eighth grade when he saw a NOVA documentary on Eugene Shoemaker, a pioneer in planetary science. Intrigued by the potential importance of impact cratering, Daly followed Shoemaker’s lead with high school science projects focused on impact cratering.

That interest continued at BYU where his research with Austin helped him earn his spot at Brown. Daly was accepted into all seven of the graduate programs he applied to largely based on his undergraduate research background.

“In a very real way, the undergraduate experiences that I had at BYU were fundamental to my getting accepted to these different programs. Once I got here, the research experiences that I had as an undergraduate really allowed me to hit the ground running.”