Evidence for comet impact in the Sahara Desert

The desert surface of the remote Sahara of SW Egypt and adjacent Libya is strewn with silica-rich glass over an area of up to 6500 km2.  Pale yellow in colour and translucent, the glass clearly attracted Pleistocene hunter gatherers who manufactured edged tools  from it. Pieces cut en cabouchon are also found in pharaonic jewellery, including an item found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Evidence for its formation at very high temperature is the melting temperature of pure silica around 2000°C and the presence of baddeleyite, a breakdown product of zircon. The glass fragments are undoubtedly the product of shock heating of desert sand or the local Nubian Sandstone of Cretaceous age by some kind of extraterrestrial impact. Fission-track dating suggests the glass formed around 29 Ma ago. A possible source is a 30 km wide crater on the Gilf Kebir Plateau made famous by Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient that was centered on Pleistocene rock art discovered at the Cave of Swimmers in the Nubian Sandstone.

Tutanhkamun pendant with Wadjet
Scarab cut from Libyan Desert Glass in a pendant from the tomb of Tutanhkamun (credit: Wikipedia)

Neither the crater nor the glass strewn field yields meteoritic material despite several expeditions but the platinum-group metal content of the glass indicates an impact origin. Some specimens include enigmatic, graphite-rich banding. However, recently a South African-French team studied a strange, irregular 30 g fragment picked up in 1996 by an Egyptian postgraduate student collecting samples from the strewn field. He discovered that the dark fragment contained diamond by using X-ray diffraction. The dominant element in the fragment is carbon with less than 5% silicates and the new study used a battery of geochemical tests that confirmed the presence of abundant tiny diamonds (Kramers, J.D. and 13 others 2013. Unique chemistry of a diamond bearing pebble from the Libyan Desert Glass strewn field, SW Egypt: Evidence for a shocked comet fragment. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 382, p. 21-31).

Conceivably, the diamonds could have formed by shock metamorphism of a coal seam or other carbonaceous sediments at the site of an impact – the K-T boundary layer formed by the huge Chicxulub impact contains nano-diamonds. However none of the chemical characteristics, including noble gas isotopic proportions and those of carbon, match terrestrial organic matter. Nor do they match carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that could have been another potential source, in its case an impactor of that composition. Instead, much evidence suggests the fragment is chemically akin to interplanetary dust and dust from the coma of comet 81P/Wild2 captured by NASDA’s Stardust mission in 2004. A plausible explanation, therefore, for the glass strewn field is an airburst explosion of a comet nucleus above the Sahara, the particle being a shocked fragment of the comet itself.

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