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The last secret of Tutankhamun: a jewel created by a comet

Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) and one of Akhenaten's sisters, or perhaps one of his cousins. As a prince he was known as Tutankhaten. He ascended to the throne in 1333 BC, at the age of nine or ten, taking the throne name Nebkheperure. His wet-nurse was a woman called Maia, known from her tomb at Saqqara. When he became king, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten, who later changed her name to Ankhesenamun. They had two daughters, both stillborn. Computed tomography studies released in 2011 revealed that one daughter died at 5–6 months of pregnancy and the other at 9 months of pregnancy. No evidence was found in either mummy of congenital anomalies or an apparent cause of death.

Putting history apart and for the first time in history a fragment of a comet impact on Earth was discovered, and impact which fused the desert sand in glasses used as jewellery by the ancient Egyptians.
When in 1922 Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter found the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings , the news went around the world in an era in which such distribution was not something easy to get. Among the wonders found by archaeologists at the mausoleum, the image of the gold funerary mask has always been one of the most popular. Yet there is another piece that did not raise much admiration in his day, but whose image is going around the world today, 91 years after the discovery.

It is a chest, a pendant with a large beetle silica glass at its center. The gem polished by craftsmen, was one of the so-called Libyan Desert glass, yellow stones that are scattered over an area of ,000 square kilometres of the Sahara, with some 28 million years ago and which were known since the Pleistocene. Not so their origin: for sand crystallize of this kind requires an extremely high temperature, suggesting the explosion of a meteorite. Now, a multidisciplinary team of South African scientists have finally revealed the secret of these glasses and thus, showed the first ever known evidence of a comet impact on Earth. The results are published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters and presented at a conference in the South African Witwatersrand University.

There are many known cases of meteorite impacts on Earth. But on the contrary, never has it been found any remains of comets, except for some dust particles at high altitudes in the atmosphere and certain carbonaceous residues found in the ice of Antarctica. We do get comets visiting our skies, they known as these dirty snowballs, ice mixed with dust. But never before in history has a comet material found on Earth, "said the co-author of the new David Block studio of Witwatersrand.

In fact, the scientific interest of this type of material has driven the development of space missions designed to collect samples of these wandering bodies. "NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) spend billions of dollars to collect a few micrograms of material from comets and bring them back to Earth," said study leader, The geochemist at the University of Johannesburg Jan Kramers . "Now we have a radically new approach to study this material," he boasts.

The work of Kramer’s, Block and colleagues is not limited to explain the crystallization of the sand, but it reveals an extraordinary find, a comet fragment that caused the phenomenon. His work has focused on a mysterious black pebble found by an Egyptian geologist years ago in a silica glass southwest of Egypt. At first thought it might be of an unusual type of meteorite, but chemical analyses performed on the stone discarded one by one all assumptions. It was not terrestrial carbon or meteoritic rock, yet without question certain isotopes pointed to an extra-terrestrial origin. In fact only one explanation remained. They now had the first macroscopic specimen from the nucleus of a comet. Kramers excitedly recalls the moment: "It's the typical scientific euphoria, when you remove all other options and get convinced of what it should be."
Hypanthia microscopic diamonds The finding has allowed researchers to reconstruct what happened 28 million years ago, when a comet entered Earth's atmosphere and exploded over Egypt, scattering his remains and melted the desert sand at a temperature of about 2,000 degrees Celsius. Besides silica glasses, the enormous heat caused the formation of microscopic diamonds as those found within the black pebble, which scientists have named hypanthia in honour of the mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria. "Diamonds are produced from carbon material. Usually found in the depths of the Earth, where the pressure is very high, but you can cause a lot of pressure on a hit. Part of the comet impact and blast produced diamonds, "explains Kramers.

It may be one of the last secrets of the tomb of Tutankhamun that were to be revealed, but instead hypanthia have only begun to show theirs. The discovery triggered the start of a broader international project aimed at ambitious hear what this pebble can tell us about our own origins. "Comets contain the secrets of the formation of our solar system, and we have an unprecedented opportunity to study a comet material" says Block.

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