A meteorite weighing 15.2 metric tonnes included two minerals that had never before been observed on Earth, according to scientists (33,510 pounds).
According to a news release from the University of Alberta, the materials come from a 70-gram (almost 2.5-ounce) chunk of the meteorite, which was found in Somalia in 2020 and is the ninth-largest meteorite ever found.
Samples of the space rock were sent to Chris Herd, curator of the university’s meteorite collection, for classification. As he was looking at it, he noticed something strange: some of the sample’s components weren’t visible under a microscope. Then, because Andrew Locock, director of the university’s electron microscope laboratory, has experience describing new minerals, he turned to him for help.
“The very first day he did some analyses, he said, ‘You’ve got at least two new minerals in there,'” Herd, a professor in the university’s department of Earth and atmospheric sciences, said in a statement. “That was phenomenal. Most of the time it takes a lot more work than that to say there’s a new mineral.”
Elaliite is a mineral that takes its name from the space object known as the “El Ali” meteorite, which was discovered close to the town of El Ali in central Somalia.
After Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative, Herd gave the second one the name elkinstantonite. Elkins-Tanton is the primary investigator of NASA’s forthcoming Psyche mission, which will go to a metal-rich asteroid that is orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. He is also a regents professor in that university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.
“Lindy has done a lot of work on how the cores of planets form, how these iron nickel cores form, and the closest analogue we have are iron meteorites,” Herd said. “It made sense to name a mineral after her and recognize her contributions to science.”
Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist and professor of research in the department of geology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that the International Mineralogical Association’s recognition of the two new minerals in November of this year “indicates that the work is strong.”
“Whenever you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rock, was different than what’s been found before,” Herd said. “That’s what makes this exciting: In this particular meteorite you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”
LAB-CREATED MINERALS’ PART IN DISCOVERY
According to a press statement from the University of Alberta, Locock was able to quickly identify the newly discovered minerals since comparable minerals had previously been synthesized, and he was able to match the composition of the newly discovered minerals with their artificial equivalents.
Alan Rubin, a meteorite researcher, former adjunct professor, and research geochemist in the department of earth, planetary, and space sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “Material scientists do this all the time.” They can make new compounds for a variety of reasons, such as to explore what is physically feasible for research purposes or because they are looking for a substance with specific attributes for a practical or commercial application, such as conductivity, high strain, or high melting temperature.
It is just by chance that a scientist will discover a mineral in a meteorite or a terrestrial rock that has never been observed before, and very frequently, the same compound will have already been invented by material scientists.
Both new minerals are phosphates of iron, Tschauner said. Phosphate is a salt or ester of phosphoric acid.
He said through email that phosphides, which are a rare primary component of iron meteorites, are converted into phosphites, which are secondary products in iron meteorites. “The two novel phosphates provide information about the oxidation processes that took place in the meteorite sample. As far as I’m aware, many of these meteorite phosphates developed in space, however, it’s unclear if the oxidation took place there or on Earth following the fall. Water was most likely the reactant that led to the oxidation in either scenario.”
The findings were presented in November at the University of Alberta’s Space Exploration Symposium. The revelations “broaden our perspective on the natural materials that can be found and can be formed in the solar system,” Rubin said.
According to Herd, it appears that the El Ali meteorite from which the materials were extracted was sent to China in search of a buyer.
To determine the circumstances present in the meteorite at the time the space rock originated, scientists are still examining the minerals, as well as maybe a third one. Additionally, he continued, recently found minerals might have fascinating long-term effects.
“Whenever there’s a new material that’s known, material scientists are interested too because of the potential uses in a wide range of things in society,” Herd said.