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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

Read more about our meteorite collection

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

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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.

 

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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!*

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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. 

 

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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.

 

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

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Museum scientists Ashley King and Anton Kearsley have co-authored an article published in Science on 14 August 2014 on the first laboratory analysis of interstellar dust grains.


Have you ever wondered what exists beyond the solar system? Most people think space is empty, but in actual fact the vast regions between the stars, the interstellar medium, is full of tiny dust grains. Until recently the only way to study this dust was to use telescopes and we knew very little about its size, composition and structure. However, a new study has now described the first successful laboratory analysis of dust grains from outside the solar system.

 

The interstellar dust was returned to Earth by NASA’s Stardust mission. Launched in 1999, the spacecraft had a collector made of aerogel bricks (the lightest solid material on Earth) in a frame made of aluminium. This was specially designed to preserve materials impacting into it at very high speeds (faster than 6 km/s). One side of the collector was used to capture materials from the comet Wild 2, the other to capture interstellar dust passing through the solar system. The sample-return capsule arrived safely back on Earth in 2006 and, following initial analysis of the comet grains, work began on the interstellar side.

 

er_capsule_ground.jpgThe Stardust sample-return capsule landed in the Utah desert on 16 January 2006. The capsule was transported to Johnson Space Centre, Houston to be opened in a clean facility (Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech).


The study reports the findings of a 6 year collaborative effort between 66 scientists (including myself and Anton Kearsley at the Museum) working in 36 laboratories in 7 countries. The team also received help from >30,000 members of the public who identified impacts tracks by searching through thousands of digital microscope images as part of the citizen science program Stardust@home.

 

It turned out that most of the impact tracks and craters were caused by debris from the spacecraft or dust from within the solar system. However, 7 grains are likely to be of interstellar origin and, using the experience gained from examination of the comet particles, the team developed methods for extracting, handling and analysing the precious interstellar samples, finding some unexpected results along the way!

Picture2.jpgTiny dust particles impacting into the collector (about the size of a tennis racket) produced tracks in the aerogel (right) and craters in the Al-foils (Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech).


The interstellar grains are very small, typically weighing a picogram (a millionth of a millionth of a gramme) or less, and have different compositions and structures. One of the biggest discoveries is that the grains have at least partly crystalline structures, which is surprising as most people thought that the crystallinity should be destroyed in interstellar space by irradiation.

 

Sample-return missions such as Stardust are therefore allowing us to answer big questions about the formation and evolution of galaxies and solar systems by studying minute amounts of material in the laboratory. The Science paper has just hit the headlines today but, hopefully, there's a lot more to come in this story.

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About the authors

Dr Jenny Claydon

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

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