Skip navigation
Previous Next


June 2014

If you’ve read Jenny’s post you’ll be familiar with our research group. This week I’m going to tell you a bit about my job - I’m Ashley, a research scientist at the Museum investigating water in meteorites.


We all know that water is vital to sustaining life on Earth, but where did it come from? One suggestion is that it arrived here from asteroids and comets early in the Earth’s history. Meteorites can contain nearly 20% water and we study these to try and better understand the history of water in the solar system.


Recently, a group of us visited the Diamond Light Source (DLS) to carry out experiments on some meteorites. Diamond is the UK’s synchrotron facility and is used by many different scientists to study anything from dinosaur bones to new medicines. It works by accelerating electrons close to the speed of light to produce bright beams of electromagnetic radiation. These beams can be up to 10 million times brighter than the Sun.



Here I am using the data collected to make a map of water-bearing minerals in the Murchison meteorite.


During our visit we used a beam of infrared light. Infrared light can be used for many things (like controlling your TV using a remote control); we used it to map the location of water in meteorites. We focused the beam to a very small spot so that we could study the meteorites on a very small scale.



Nat keeps the infra-red detector cold by topping it up with liquid nitrogen. This had to be done every 7 hours.


Synchrotrons are now becoming a very popular choice for scientists carrying out experiments. They operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they can be set up to carry out lots of different experiments and they generate huge amounts of data in a very short time. This means that synchrotrons are used to study some of the most important topics in science. Unfortunately it also means that the time for your experiment is limited and you often have to work for several days with very little sleep, which has been known to lead to the occasional nap on job!



Searching for water in meteorites is hard work…


Hello! I’m Jenny, a research scientist studying meteorites at the Natural History Museum. My work focuses on the timing of heating events in the early solar system, but more on that another time…


I’m part of a group of researchers, curators and PhD students who study meteorites and other extraterrestrial materials in the Museum’s Earth Sciences department. We study these rocks – using various laboratory techniques – so that we can better understand the formation of the solar system.


The Museum is a great place to carry out this research as its meteorite collection is one of the finest in the world; containing almost 5,000 pieces of 2,000 individual meteorites. Most of these come from asteroids, but we also have meteorites from the Moon and Mars. Our collection also includes objects formed during meteorites impacts.


We’ve decided to start this blog so that we can communicate our research to you and provide a more in depth look at the Museum’s meteorite collection. As it’s our first post I’ll give a few examples of why our research matters and how it gives important insights into the world and space around us.


  • The solar system formed about four and a half billion years ago. We know this from studying meteorites like this one, called Allende. It contains a component that is rich in calcium and aluminium (called calcium-aluminium inclusions or CAIs). These CAIs are the oldest solar system materials.


This is a stone from the Allende meteorite. The white part is a calcium aluminium inclusion (we call them CAIs). These CAIs are thought to be the first solid material to form in the solar system.


  • There has not been a sample return mission to Mars yet so, for now, the only pieces of Mars available for scientific study on Earth are meteorites. These meteorites help us understand the volcanic processes that occurred on another planet. We are lucky enough to have a large (1.1 kg) piece of a martian meteorite called Tissint on display in the Vault gallery.


The largest piece of the martian meteorite, Tissint. We keep it in a container called a dessicator to protect it from Earth's environment.

  • Meteorites contain a lot of water! You might think that asteroids are very dry objects, but in some meteorites up to 20% of their weight is made up of water. These meteorites are called carbonaceous chondrites as they contain organic carbon – this also makes them look very black in colour, as you can see in the photo of the Ivuna meteorite, below. Their chemical composition is very similar to the Sun, which means they preserve the most primitive solar system materials, unchanged for over four and a half billion years.



This is a piece of the Ivuna meteorite. It looks very dark, almost black, because it contains a lot of carbon.

I hope you found that information interesting! I, along with the rest of the meteorite group, will use this blog to tell you more about our collection. We will also write about our individual research (what we hope to achieve, what lab techniques we use, conferences we attend), the curation of meteorites and our outreach activities. Check back soon for more!