New meteorite flies into Natural History Museum

Press release - 20 June 2008

A rare meteorite that could reveal the secrets of the birth of the solar system jetted in to the Natural History Museum’s collection today. 

British Airways gave the satsuma-sized rock, called Ivuna, star treatment during its transfer from a private collection in the USA.

‘Ivuna is a real-life time capsule that means we can look at the very first steps of how our solar system formed,’ said Dr Caroline Smith, meteorite curator at the Natural History Museum. ‘We hold one of the most comprehensive meteorite collections in the world, yet Ivuna has been a missing piece in the jigsaw. If we can better understand the complex processes that occurred in our solar system over 4.5 billion years ago, we can apply this to other stellar systems where planets are forming today.’

Ivuna fell in Tanzania in 1938 and one stone weighing 705 grammes was recovered. Until now it has not been accessible for extensive research, as most samples of that one meteorite are held in private collections or by the Tanzanian government. The Museum’s new acquisition means the UK now holds the largest sample of the meteorite in any public collection anywhere in the world.

Captain Nick Grandy, pilot from the British Airways flight said, ‘We have been lucky enough to fly many strange and wonderful objects on BA flights. But this is the first time I’ve flown a piece of space history in the cabin. We are honoured to have the Ivuna meteorite as our oldest, most widely travelled customer and are proud to be bringing such an item of scientific importance to the UK.’

Ivuna is an extremely rare kind of meteorite whose chemical make-up matches the sun. It is considered to represent the raw materials from which the solar system formed. Only nine out of the 35,000 meteorites (0.03%) known to science have this solar composition. Ivuna is arguably the best example – it is the most significant recent fall and is in optimum condition having been kept in a nitrogen atmosphere for the past 25 years.

One question that Ivuna could be used to help answer is whether the chemical building blocks for life came from the stars. Important components of early genetic material, the amino acids b-alanine and glycine, were found in Ivuna in a 2001 study. And last week scientists at Imperial College confirmed that a meteorite called Murchison contains extra-terrestrial molecules that are the precursors to DNA and RNA. In addition to being used for research, Ivuna will be a star specimen in a new meteorites gallery, which the Museum is planning for the near future.

The Museum’s collection of more than 1,880 meteorites includes fragments of two others that have solar composition. We hold 700 grammes of Orgueil, which fell in 1864 but is not suitable for many scientific investigations as it has been contaminated while on Earth. It also holds a small amount (less than three grammes) of a meteorite named Alais, which fell in 1806.

Most meteorites found on Earth are believed to be fragments of asteroids – ancient rocks that formed during the creation of the solar system about 4.56 billion years ago. Each year about 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes of extraterrestrial material hits the Earth, mostly as dust the size of grains of sand. About 1,000 meteorites land every year ranging from the size of a football to a washing machine. It is very rare to see a meteorite land, but people frequently see meteors falling through the sky, which are often described as shooting stars.

The Ivuna flight is part of a long-term partnership with British Airways, which gives free flights to Museum scientists enabling them to carry out important fieldwork around the world.

Ends

Notes for editors

  •  Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.

For further information, images or to arrange an interview please contact:
Chloe Kembery, Senior Press Officer, Natural History Museum
Tel: 020 7942 5881 Mobile: 07799 690 151 Email: c.kembery@nhm.ac.uk

Tove Carroll, Consumer PR British Airways
Tel: 020 8738 7330 Mobile: 07789 610410 Email: tove.carroll@ba.com

Cartoon image of a hatchet fish on a museum pass

In World War II the Museum was used as a secret base to develop new gadgets for allied spies, including an exploding rat!