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Meteorites research

Olivine chondrule from the Palmyra chondrite meteorite.

Our meteorite collection contains 5,000 pieces of 2,000 individual meteorites from the asteroid belt, Mars and the Moon. These rocks are helping our scientists understand planet-forming processes, evidence for the presence of water on other planets and the evolution of our solar system.

Follow our blog to find out why we study meteorites and how they are helping Museum scientists unravel the secrets of our solar system.

Meteorites research at the Museum

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Some meteorites, called CI chondrites, contain quite a lot of water; more than 15% of their total weight. Scientists have suggested that impacts by meteorites like these could have delivered water to the early Earth. The water in CI chondrites is locked up in minerals produced by aqueous alteration processes on the meteorite’s parent asteroid, billions of years ago. It has been very hard to study these minerals due to their small size, but new work carried out by the Meteorite Group at the Natural History Museum has been able to quantify the abundance of these minerals.


The minerals produced by aqueous alteration (including phyllosilicates, carbonates, sulphides and oxides) are typically less than one micron in size (the width of a human hair is around 100 microns!). They are very important, despite their small size, because they are major carriers of water in meteorites. We need to know how much of a meteorite is made of these minerals in order to fully understand fundamental things such as the physical and chemical conditions of aqueous alteration, and what the original starting mineralogy of asteroids was like.



A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.


The grains in CI chondrites are too small to examine using an optical or electron microscope so we used a technique known as X-ray diffraction (XRD). XRD is a great tool for identifying minerals and determining their abundance in a meteorite sample. We found that the CI chondrites Alais, Orgueil and Ivuna each contain more than 80% phyllosilicates, suggesting that nearly all of the original material in the rock had been transformed by water.


As part of the study we also analysed some unusual CI-like chondrites (Y-82162 and Y-980115) that were found in Antarctica. These meteorites have similar characteristics to the CI chondrites we studied, but also experienced a period of thermal metamorphism (heating) after the aqueous alteration. We found that the phyllosilicates had lost most of their water and had even started to recrystallize back into olivine, a process that requires temperatures above 500°C! The CI-like chondrites are probably from the surface of an asteroid that was heated by a combination of impacts with other asteroids, and radiation from the Sun; however, whether the CI and CI-like chondrites come from the same parent body, remains an open question.



XRD patterns from the CI chondrites Alais, Orgueil and Ivuna. X-rays diffracted from atoms in the minerals are recorded as diffraction peaks. Different minerals produce characteristic diffraction patterns allowing us to identify what phases are in the meteorites. In this work we also used the intensity of the diffraction peaks to determine how much of each mineral is present.


This research has been published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta and can be accessed here.


King AJ, Schofield PF, Howard KT, Russell SS (2015) Modal mineralogy of CI and CI-like chondrites by X-ray diffraction, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 165:148-160.


It was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and NASA.


We’re delighted to announce the start of a new meteorites project called Shooting Stars @ the Natural History Museum that aims to observe meteors over the UK.


Meteors (also known as shooting stars) are dust and rocks from space that generate a bright trail in the sky as they pass through the atmosphere. When a piece of rock enters Earth’s atmosphere it is moving very quickly (11 – 70km per second). As it falls to Earth the friction from the air causes it to glow and disintegrate. A very bright meteor is called a fireball. If the fireball is large enough (usually >1m), some of the rock may survive the fall and land on the Earth’s surface, which is when it becomes known as a meteorite.


Meteorites record 4.5 billion years of solar system history, but we rarely know where exactly in the solar system they came from. We think most are from asteroids, and some may even be from comets. One way to confirm this is to know a meteorite’s original orbit, which can be estimated if its fireball is witnessed from multiple locations. However, out of a collection of ~50,000 meteorites worldwide, fewer than 10 have been observed falling to Earth in enough detail to accurately calculate their orbit.



My desk is getting crowded but we now have everything we need to start watching the skies!


To increase the chances of seeing a meteorite while it is falling to Earth, a number of digital camera networks, dedicated to detecting meteors and fireballs, have been set up around the world. Some use highly sophisticated cameras and software, whilst others are more low-tech affairs.


Our Shooting Stars project will contribute to these networks by using two CCTV cameras to search for meteor fireballs above the UK. One camera will be placed on the roof of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, and the second will be located at our Tring site to avoid the effects of light pollution in central London.



Our new toy! This is one of the CCTV cameras that we will use to search for meteors and fireballs above the UK.


Over the last few months we have received almost daily deliveries of cameras, lenses, cables and computers. We’re hoping to have the first camera built and ready for testing in the next couple of weeks, so check back here and keep an eye on our twitter account for the latest updates.



A fish-eye lens will be attached to the camera to give us a wide-angle view of the night sky.


Last December, Epi Vaccaro (one of our PhD students) and I went to two scientific meetings in Tokyo, Japan. Our aims were to present some of the research that we’ve been doing at the Museum and to meet other scientists who work on similar samples and topics.


First up was the Fifth Symposium on Polar Science at the National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR). Since the early 1960s, the NIPR has used Antarctic stations to carry out research into a wide range of areas including climate, atmospheric science and biology. Fortunately for us, they are also interested in meteorites and, after several 'meteorite hunting'expeditions in the Antarctic, now have one of the largest collections in the world.


I spoke at the meeting (despite a serious case of jetlag!) about differences I have observed between the mineralogy of CI chondrites that were seen to fall to Earth, such as Orgueil, and those that have been recovered from the Antarctic. These CI meteorites are important as they show very similar characteristics to the surfaces of some asteroids that are soon(ish!) to be visited by space missions.



Presentations were temporarily suspended at the NIPR meeting as we watched the launch of the Hayabusa-2 mission.


One of these missions is the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, which aims to collect material from a primitive asteroid and return it to Earth. We think that this material will allow us to learn more about water and life in the early solar system.


The samples won’t touch down on Earth until 2020 but the spacecraft was launched (after a few days delay) during our stay in Japan. I think that watching a tiny spacecraft being hurtled into space on the back of a rocket, whilst sitting alongside the people who have invested so much time and energy into the mission, was one of the most tense afternoons of my life!*



Model of the Hayabusa spacecraft at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).


You may have guessed from its name that Hayabusa-2 is actually a follow up to the original Hayabusa spacecraft, which (despite a few bumps along the way) in 2010 became the first ever mission to collect material from an asteroid and bring it back to Earth.


Hayabusa 2014 Symposium at JAXA. The meeting covered diverse subjects such as space weathering and sample curation, and also included a talk by Epi on the challenges of analysing very small samples using non-destructive techniques.



Epi presenting his work at the Hayabusa 2014 Symposium at JAXA.


Sample return missions are challenging and expensive but produce very exciting science, as I witnessed at JAXA. There are limits on what kinds of scientific experiments can be carried out remotely, but returned samples from the asteroid belt will provide a wealth of new information about our solar system’s past.


*You’ll be pleased to hear that the launch was successful and Hayabusa-2 is safely on its way.


A guest post by Helena Bates, undergraduate student at Imperial College London.

This summer I had the opportunity to work alongside scientists in the Mineral and Planetary Science Division at the Natural History Museum on a project sponsored by the Paneth Trust, a scheme which offers bursaries to undergraduates so that they can do a summer internship in fields relating to meteoritics.


The project I joined was led by Ashley King and involved investigating minerals that were created by aqueous alteration in CI and CM carbonaceous chondrites. These types of meteorites have had almost all of their original material altered by water into fine-grained clay type minerals, which are so small they cannot be easily studied by looking through a microscope. Instead, we used a process called X-ray diffraction to identify mineral components. When a small beam of X-rays is focused on the sample it produces a diffraction-pattern unique to the minerals present.


Ashley and I are busy using the X-ray diffractometer.


Usually this process involves grinding up a sample of a meteorite, and any information about where in the meteorite a certain mineral is located is lost. However, the alteration that the meteorite experienced was probably not uniform so knowledge of the distribution of aqueous alteration minerals is important. If we can see where the alteration took place within the meteorite this can help us put constraints on the role of water in the early solar system and perhaps even see how the water moved through the sample! So rather than grinding up samples we carried out X-ray diffraction on thin sections of meteorites.


We looked at a total of 4 meteorites, all of which were found in Antarctica and on loan to us from NASA and JAXA. They were; Y-82162, a CI chondrite, LAP 02277 and MIL 07689, both of which were CM1 chondrites, and MCY 05231, a CM1/2.


HBimage1.jpgA thin section of meteorite LAP 02277 with dots showing where X-ray diffraction patterns were collected.

For each meteorite we produced maps of various minerals that are produced by reactions with water, including phyllosilicates, iron oxides and carbonates. These maps give us spatial information about where some minerals are located in relation to others. Obviously this is just the beginning of the technique, but it is easy to see how this can be taken further to produce larger maps which can show how water moved through the sample. This will help us understand the role of water during the formation of asteroids, 4.6 billion years ago.


Thank you so much to everyone at the Natural History Museum, especially Ashley King, who let me help with his research, and thank you to the Paneth Trust for helping fund this internship – it was an incredible experience!


Next week is the Annual Meeting of the Meteoritical Society. This year it is being held in Morocco by scientists from Hassan II University of Casablanca. All of us in the Museum’s meteorite research team are heading out to Casablanca on Sunday for a week of presentations, discussions, networking and a great chance to explore some of Morocco.


epi.jpgThe Moroccan Atlas Mountains. A great place to go meteorite hunting! (Image credit: E. Vaccaro)


Many meteorites have been found in Morocco, including the Martian meteorite Tissint, so this is a very appropriate place for hundreds of meteorite-lovers to convene (the organisers have even named the conference meeting rooms after meteorites!).


Morocco has an abundance of meteorites because it is largely desert, and deserts are excellent places to look for odd, dark coloured rocks from space. Most of the meteorites found in this region are given the designation NWA (for North West Africa) as it is not always known exactly where they fell before they were passed on to collectors and institutions by meteorite dealers. 



Museum scientist Dr Caroline Smith holds the Tissint meteorite. It is now the largest Martian meteorite in the Natural History Museum collections.


Museum research being presented at the meeting includes:

  • Professor Sara Russell on the new carbonaceous chondrite, Jbilet Winselwan.
  • Dr Caroline Smith on planning for Mars sample return missions.
  • Dr Penny Wozniakiewicz on collecting and identifying micrometeorites.
  • Dr Ashley King on fine-grained rims in CM chondrites.
  • Dr Jennifer Claydon on the Al-Mg system in chondrules.
  • Dr Natasha Stephen on mapping Martian meteorites.
  • PhD student Epifanio Vaccaro on characterising primitive meteorite matrix.
  • PhD student Natasha Almeida on using CT to study the interiors of meteorites.


We hope to keep you updated on the Meteoritical Society Meeting via our blog and our Twitter account @NHM_Meteorites.



And here's what one of our PhD students, Epi, got up to on his last time in Morocco! (Image credit: E Vaccaro)


About the authors

Dr Jenny Claydon

Dr Jenny Claydon is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant studying the timing of formation processes in the solar system.

More about the meteorites group