Prof Sara Russell

Space missions and stellar mysteries inspire our extraterrestrial materials expert to study the solar system.

Sara Russell

Early aspirations

Growing up in the 1970s, Prof Russell was surrounded by the space race, and she says it was ‘the first time I saw grown-ups get excited by something.’ 

An ensuing obsession with space led to years of space-related gifts from relatives and eventually an academic career. Watching missions to the Moon and Mars inspired her to hunt for the origins of our solar system, by studying extraterrestrial materials.

‘Most meteorites are four and half billion years old and they date from the time that the Earth formed,’ she says. ‘I find it fascinating that you can look at them and learn about how our Earth was formed, where we come from.’

Super specimens

One of Prof Russell’s favourite specimens also dates from the space race: the Allende meteorite. When it fell in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1969, labs around the world were ready to receive material from the Apollo missions, but with those precious rocks in short supply, many instead were perfectly suited to study bits of Allende.

Moon material is still in high demand, and a pristine lunar meteorite would be one of Prof Russell’s ideal finds. Meteorites chipped off the Moon do find their way to Earth, but are usually much altered from the impact of landing.

One specimen she hopes doesn’t fall to Earth is an asteroid named for her. It sits in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and is currently in a stable orbit. ‘Thankfully it won’t hit the Earth, which would be embarrassing.’

Bringing the past to life

Prof Russell has been able to date the cloud of dust that formed the early solar system, revealing that it persisted for two to five million years before collapsing in on itself and forming the planets.

Prof Russell is involved in several collecting activities to find material for further research into the building blocks of the solar system.

These include a NASA mission to retrieve material from an orbiting asteroid and expeditions to Earth’s deserts, both hot and cold, to find new meteorites that have landed on Earth.