Iron meteorites are thought to be samples of metallic cores and pools that formed in diverse small planetary bodies. Their great diversity offers remarkable insights into the formation of asteroids and the early history of the solar system. The chemical compositions of iron meteorites generally match those predicted from experimental and theoretical considerations of melting in small bodies. These bodies, called planetesimals, were composed of mixtures of grains of silicates, metallic iron-nickel, and iron sulfide with compositions and proportions like those in chondrite meteorites. Melting in planetesimals caused dense metal to sink through silicate so that metallic cores formed. A typical iron meteorite contains 5–10% nickel, ~0.5% cobalt, 0.1–0.5% phosphorus, 0.1–1% sulfur and over 20 other elements in trace amounts. A few percent of iron meteorites also contain silicate inclusions, which should have readily separated from molten metal because of their buoyancy. They provide important evidence for impacts between molten or partly molten planetesimals. The major heat source for melting planetesimals was the radioactive isotope 26Al, which has a half-life of 0.7 million years. However, a few iron meteorites probably formed by impact melting of chondritic material. Impact processes were also important in the creation of many iron meteorites when planetesimals were molten. Chemical analysis show that most iron meteorites can be divided into 14 groups: about 15% appear to come from another 50 or more poorly sampled parent bodies. Chemical variations within all but three groups are consistent with fractional crystallization of molten cores of planetesimals. The other three groups are richer in silicates and probably come from pools of molten metal in chondritic bodies. Isotopic analysis provides formation ages for iron meteorites and clues to their provenance. Isotopic dating suggests that the parent bodies of iron meteorites formed before those of chondrites, and some irons appear to be the oldest known meteorites. Their unexpected antiquity is consistent with 26Al heating of planetesimals. Bodies that accreted more than ~2 million years after the oldest known solids (refractory inclusions in chondrites) should not have contained enough 26Al to melt. Isotopic analysis also shows that iron meteorites, like other meteorite types, display small anomalies due to pre-solar grains that were not homogenized in the solar nebula (or protoplanetary disk). Although iron meteorites are derived from asteroids, their isotopic anomalies provide the best clues that some come from planetesimals that did not form in the asteroid belt. Some may have formed beyond Jupiter; others show isotopic similarities to Earth and may have formed in the neighborhood of the terrestrial planets. Iron meteorites therefore contain important clues to the formation of planetesimals that melted and they also provide constraints on theories for the formation of planets and asteroids.
Edward R. D. Scott
Kun Wang and Randy Korotev
For thousands of years, people living in Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and other parts of the world have been fascinated by shooting stars, which are the light and sound phenomena commonly associated with meteorite impacts. The earliest written record of a meteorite fall is logged by Chinese chroniclers in 687 bce. However, centuries before that, Egyptians had been using “heavenly iron” to make their first iron tools, including a dagger found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb that dates back to the 14th century bce. Even though human beings have a long history of observing meteors and utilizing meteorites, we did not start to recognize their true celestial origin until the Age of Enlightenment. In 1794 German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni was the first to summarize the scientific evidence and to demonstrate that these unique objects are indeed from outside of the Earth. After more than two centuries of joint efforts by countless keen amateur, academic, institutional, and commercial collectors, more than 60,000 meteorites have been catalogued and classified in the Meteoritical Bulletin Database. This number is continually growing, and meteorites are found all over the world, especially in dry and sparsely populated regions such as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert. Although there are thousands of individual meteorites, they can be handily classified into three broad groups by simple examinations of the specimens. The most common type is stony meteorite, which is made of mostly silicate rocks. Iron meteorites are the easiest to be preserved for thousands (or even millions) of years on the Earth’s surface environments, and they are composed of iron and nickel metals. The stony-irons contain roughly the same amount of metals and silicates, and these spectacular meteorites are the favorites of many collectors and museums. After 200 years, meteoritics (the science of meteorites) has grown out of its infancy and become a vibrant area of research today. The general directions of meteoritic studies are: (1) mineralogy, identifying new minerals or mineral phases that rarely or seldom found on the Earth; (2) petrology, studying the igneous and aqueous textures that give meteorites unique appearances, and providing information about geologic processes on the bodies upon which the meteorites originates; (3) geochemistry, characterizing their major, trace elemental, and isotopic compositions, and conducting interplanetary comparisons; and (4) chronology, dating the ages of the initial crystallization and later on impacting disturbances. Meteorites are the only extraterrestrial samples other than Apollo lunar rocks and Hayabusa asteroid samples that we can directly analyze in laboratories. Through the studies of meteorites, we have quested a vast amount of knowledge about the origin of the Solar System, the nature of the molecular cloud, the solar nebula, the nascent Sun and its planetary bodies including the Earth and its Moon, Mars, and many asteroids. In fact, the 4.6-billion-year age of the whole Solar System is solely defined by the oldest age dated in meteorites, which marked the beginning of everything we appreciate today.