Dr Ashley King examines a meteorite sample in the Museum's clean lab

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Portrait of a planetary scientist

Peering into the origins of our solar system with light brighter than ten billion suns - Dr Ashley King gives an insight into his work as a planetary scientist.

It's late November, and Dr Ashley King has been preparing for a research trip to the Diamond Light Source, an advanced science facility in Oxfordshire. The work he does there will peer back over 4.5 billion years, to a time when the solar system was still a cloud of dust.

'The Diamond Light Source produces X-rays ten billion times brighter than the sun, and you can focus them down to a very small spot to look at samples,' says King.

'So we can look at really small grains of meteorites and work out how they formed and what they tell us about the origins of the solar system. It's very cool.'

It is, he says, the most exciting part of his job. Which is no small praise, coming from a planetary scientist. 

Sparking an interest

King has been working as a meteorite researcher at the Natural History Museum since 2012. His interest in space can be traced back to the images of the solar system that NASA was returning to Earth in the '80s and '90s.

'The big thing was a television series called The Planets. I must have been 11 or 12 when that was on, and I was completely hypnotised by these pictures. There were the Voyager images of Jupiter and Saturn, and it was just… wow!'

A photograph of Saturn taken by the Voyager 2 probe.

Saturn, photographed by the Voyager 2 probe in August 1981. Image courtesy of NASA.

His original plan to become an astronaut was derailed at an early stage: 'I realised that I get travel sick, which isn't great for going into space!'

Instead, King followed his interest in space to the University of Manchester, where a degree in Geology with Planetary Science gave him the opportunity to work on meteorites - an interest he continued to develop through a PhD on presolar grains.

'They're these tiny dust particles that we can take out of meteorites, which are a hundred times smaller than the width of a human hair. They're the starting materials for the solar system, so they're more than 4.5 billion years old - although we don't know how much more exactly.'

He hopes that the images in Otherworlds, an exhibition of space photography by Michael Benson, might replicate the impact of the Voyager images. 'The pictures are absolutely stunning. They're really, really incredible.

'One thing about the solar system is that it's really difficult to get people to understand the scale. I mean, the sun is huge, and things like Pluto are 7.5 billion kilometres away.

'These things are a long, long way away. I think the images do a really good job of getting across that sense of scale.'

The search for life

King's current research at the Museum focuses on a group of meteorites called chondrites, which contain minerals that have been affected by the presence of water in the past.

The research is increasingly in the spotlight, as several major space agencies have planned missions to retrieve samples from suspected water-rich asteroids.

The Museum's fragment of Ivuna, an extremely rare form of chondrite meteorite

'It's really important now. Next year, NASA has a mission going to a very dark, primitive asteroid. And JAXA, the Japanese space agency, has just launched a mission called Hayabusa 2, which will return a sample from a similar asteroid.'

Prof Sara Russell, one of King's colleagues at the Museum, is part of the team working on OSIRIS-REx, a seven-year mission that will return a sample of the asteroid Bennu. The work done by meteorite researchers like King will be essential to unlocking the sample's secrets.

'These are asteroids that we think have extraterrestrial water and extraterrestrial organics, so they could be precursors for life. We're doing a lot of work characterising these meteorites in preparation for understanding the kinds of materials that will be brought back from the asteroids.'

The research done by King and his colleagues will give us an insight into how the asteroids formed - and, as a result, tell us more about the origins of our own planet.

'We think the solar system started as a cloud of gas and dust. And that dust started sticking together to make bigger and bigger bodies. Asteroids are the first step along the way.

'Those asteroids stuck together to make planets. So understanding asteroids, and the processes and events that affected them, is absolutely crucial for understanding how the planets formed - whether that's Jupiter, Venus or Earth.'