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Iron Meteorites: Composition, Age, and Origin  

Edward R. D. Scott

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.

Article

The Recognition of Meteorites and Ice Ages  

Alan E. Rubin

Two important scientific questions that confronted 18th- and 19th-century naturalists were whether continental glaciation had occurred thousands of years earlier and whether extraterrestrial rocks occasionally fell to Earth. Eventual recognition of these hypotheses as real phenomena resulted from initial reports by nonprofessionals, subsequent investigation by skeptical scientists, and vigorous debate. Evidence that kilometer-thick glaciers had once covered Northern Europe and Canada included (a) the resemblance of scratched and polished rocks near mountain glaciers to those located in unglaciated U-shaped valleys; (b) the similarity of poorly sorted rocks and debris within “drift deposits” (moraines) to the sediment load of glaciers; and (c) the discovery of freezing meltwater at the base of glaciers, hypothesized to facilitate their movement. Three main difficulties naturalists had with accepting the notion that rocks fell from the sky were that (a) meteorite falls are localized events, generally unwitnessed by professional scientists; (b) mixed in with reports of falling rocks were fabulous accounts of falling masses of blood, flesh, milk, gelatin, and other substances; and (c) the phenomenon of falling rocks could neither be predicted nor verified by experiment. Five advances leading to the acceptance of meteorites were (a) Ernst Chladni’s 1794 treatise linking meteors, fireballs, and falling rocks; (b) meteor observations conducted in 1798 showing the high altitudes and enormous velocities of their meteoroid progenitors; (c) a spate of several widely witnessed meteorite falls between 1794 and 1807 in Europe, India, and America; (d) chemical analyses of several meteorites by Edward Charles Howard in 1802, showing all contained nickel (which is rare in the Earth’s crust); and (e) the discoveries of four asteroids between 1801 and 1807, providing a plausible extraterrestrial source for meteorites.

Article

Meteorite Mineralogy  

Alan E. Rubin and Chi Ma

Meteorites are rocks from outer space that reach the Earth; more than 60,000 have been collected. They are derived mainly from asteroids; a few hundred each are from the Moon and Mars; some micrometeorites derive from comets. By mid 2020, about 470 minerals had been identified in meteorites. In addition to having characteristic petrologic and geochemical properties, each meteorite group has a distinctive set of pre-terrestrial minerals that reflect the myriad processes that the meteorites and their components experienced. These processes include condensation in gaseous envelopes around evolved stars, crystallization in chondrule melts, crystallization in metallic cores, parent-body aqueous alteration, and shock metamorphism. Chondrites are the most abundant meteorites; the major components within them include chondrules, refractory inclusions, opaque assemblages, and fine-grained silicate-rich matrix material. The least-metamorphosed chondrites preserve minerals inherited from the solar nebula such as olivine, enstatite, metallic Fe-Ni, and refractory phases. Other minerals in chondrites formed on their parent asteroids during thermal metamorphism (such as chromite, plagioclase and phosphate), aqueous alteration (such as magnetite and phyllosilicates) and shock metamorphism (such as ringwoodite and majorite). Differentiated meteorites contain minerals formed by crystallization from magmas; these phases include olivine, orthopyroxene, Ca-plagioclase, Ca-pyroxene, metallic Fe-Ni and sulfide. Meteorites also contain minerals formed during passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and via terrestrial weathering after reaching the surface. Whereas some minerals form only by a single process (e.g., by high-pressure shock metamorphism or terrestrial weathering of a primary phase), other meteoritic minerals can form by several different processes, including condensation, crystallization from melts, thermal metamorphism, and aqueous alteration.

Article

Meteorites  

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.

Article

Impact Crater Densities as a Tool for Dating Planetary Surfaces  

William K. Hartmann

The use of impact crater densities to estimate the ages of planetary surfaces began in the 1960s. Some predictive successes have been confirmed with radiometric dating of sites on the Moon and Mars. The method is highly dependent on our understanding of the rate of crater formation on different worlds, and, more importantly, on the history of that rate, starting with intense cratering during planetary formation 4.5 Ga ago. The system is thus calibrated by obtaining radiometric dates from samples of relatively homogeneous geologic units on various worlds. Crater chronometry is still in its infancy. Future sample-returns and in situ measurements, obtained by missions from collaborating nations to various worlds, will provide ever-increasing improvements in the system in coming decades. Such data can lead to at least two-significant-figure measurements, not only of the ages of broad geologic provinces on solar system worlds, but of the characteristic survival times of various-sized smaller craters. Such data, in turn, clarify the rates of turnover of surface materials and the production rates of gravel-like regolith and megaregolith in the surface layers. Better measurements of the impact rate at various times, in turn, support better modeling of the accretion and fragmentation processes among early planetesimals as well as contemporary asteroids, in various parts of the solar system. Once the crater chronometry system is calibrated for various planetary bodies, important chronological information about those various planetary bodies can be obtained by orbital missions, without the need for expensive sample-return or lander missions on each individual surface.

Article

Origins of Life: Open Questions and Debates  

André Brack

Stanley Miller demonstrated in 1953 that it was possible to form amino acids from methane, ammonia, and hydrogen in water, thus launching the ambitious hope that chemists would be able to shed light on the origins of life by recreating a simple life form in a test tube. However, it must be acknowledged that the dream has not yet been accomplished, despite the great volume of effort and innovation put forward by the scientific community. A minima, primitive life can be defined as an open chemical system, fed with matter and energy, capable of self-reproduction (i.e., making more of itself by itself), and also capable of evolving. The concept of evolution implies that chemical systems would transfer their information fairly faithfully but make some random errors. If we compared the components of primitive life to parts of a chemical automaton, we could conceive that, by chance, some parts self-assembled to generate an automaton capable of assembling other parts to produce a true copy. Sometimes, minor errors in the building generated a more efficient automaton, which then became the dominant species. Quite different scenarios and routes have been followed and tested in the laboratory to explain the origin of life. There are two schools of thought in proposing the prebiotic supply of organics. The proponents of a metabolism-first call for the spontaneous formation of simple molecules from carbon dioxide and water to rapidly generate life. In a second hypothesis, the primeval soup scenario, it is proposed that rather complex organic molecules accumulated in a warm little pond prior to the emergence of life. The proponents of the primeval soup or replication first approach are by far the more active. They succeeded in reconstructing small-scale versions of proteins, membranes, and RNA. Quite different scenarios have been proposed for the inception of life: the RNA world, an origin within droplets, self-organization counteracting entropy, or a stochastic approach merging chemistry and geology. Understanding the emergence of a critical feature of life, its one-handedness, is a shared preoccupation in all these approaches.

Article

Condensation Calculations in Planetary Science and Cosmochemistry  

Denton S. Ebel

The Sun’s chemical and isotopic composition records the composition of the solar nebula from which the planets formed. If a piece of the Sun is cooled to 1,000 K at 1 mbar total pressure, a mineral assemblage is produced that is consistent with the minerals found in the least equilibrated (most chemically heterogeneous), oldest, and compositionally Sunlike (chondritic), hence most “primitive,” meteorites. This is an equilibrium or fractional condensation experiment. The result can be simulated by calculations using equations of state for hundreds of gaseous molecules, condensed mineral solids, and silicate liquids, the products of a century of experimental measurements and recent theoretical studies. Such calculations have revolutionized our understanding of the chemistry of the cosmos. The mid-20th century realization that meteorites are fossil records of the early solar system made chemistry central to understanding the origin of the Earth, Moon, and other bodies. Thus “condensation,” more generally the distribution of elements and isotopes between vapor and condensed solids and/or liquids at or approaching chemical equilibrium, came to deeply inform discussion of how meteoritic and cometary compositions bear on the origins of atmospheres and oceans and the differences in composition among the planets. This expansion of thinking has had profound effects upon our thinking about the origin and evolution of Earth and the other worlds of our solar system. Condensation calculations have also been more broadly applied to protoplanetary disks around young stars, to the mineral “rain” of mineral grains expected to form in cool dwarf star atmospheres, to the expanding circumstellar envelopes of giant stars, to the vapor plumes expected to form in giant planetary impacts, and to the chemically and isotopically distinct “shells” computed and observed to exist in supernovae. The beauty of equilibrium condensation calculations is that the distribution of elements between gaseous molecules, solids, and liquids is fixed by temperature, total pressure, and the overall elemental composition of the system. As with all sophisticated calculations, there are inherent caveats, subtleties, and computational difficulties. In particular, local equilibrium chemistry has yet to be consistently integrated into gridded, dynamical astrophysical simulations so that effects like the blocking of light and heat by grains (opacity), absorption and re-emission of light by grains (radiative transfer), and buffering of heat by grain evaporation/condensation are fed back into the physics at each node or instance of a gridded calculation over time. A deeper integration of thermochemical computations of chemistry with physical models makes the prospect of a general protoplanetary disk model as hopeful in the 2020s as a general circulation model for global climate may have been in the early 1970s.

Article

Solar Elemental Abundances  

Katharina Lodders

Solar elemental abundances, or solar system elemental abundances, refer to the complement of chemical elements in the entire Solar System. The Sun contains more than 99% of the mass in the solar system and therefore the composition of the Sun is a good proxy for the composition of the overall solar system. The solar system composition can be taken as the overall composition of the molecular cloud within the interstellar medium from which the solar system formed 4.567 billion years ago. Active research areas in astronomy and cosmochemistry model collapse of a molecular cloud of solar composition into a star with a planetary system and the physical and chemical fractionation of the elements during planetary formation and differentiation. The solar system composition is the initial composition from which all solar system objects (the Sun, terrestrial planets, gas giant planets, planetary satellites and moons, asteroids, Kuiper-belt objects, and comets) were derived. Other dwarf stars (with hydrostatic hydrogen-burning in their cores) like the Sun (type G2V dwarf star) within the solar neighborhood have compositions similar to the Sun and the solar system composition. In general, differential comparisons of stellar compositions provide insights about stellar evolution as functions of stellar mass and age and ongoing nucleosynthesis but also about galactic chemical evolution when elemental compositions of stellar populations across the Milky Way Galaxy is considered. Comparisons to solar composition can reveal element destruction (e.g., Li) in the Sun and in other dwarf stars. The comparisons also show element production of, for example, C, N, O, and the heavy elements made by the s-process in low to intermediate mass stars (3–7 solar masses) after these evolved from their dwarf-star stage into red giant stars (where hydrogen and helium burning can occur in shells around their cores). The solar system abundances are and have been a critical test composition for nucleosynthesis models and models of galactic chemical evolution, which aim ultimately to track the production of the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium in the generation of stars that came forth after the Big Bang 13.4 billion years ago.

Article

Chelyabinsk Meteorite  

Olga Popova

The asteroid impact near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013, was the largest airburst on Earth since the 1908 Tunguska event, causing a natural disaster in an area with a population exceeding 1 million. On clear morning at 9:20 a.m. local time, an asteroid about 19 m in size entered the Earth atmosphere near southern Ural Mountains (Russia) and, with its bright illumination, attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of people. Dust trail in the atmosphere after the bolide was tens of kilometers long and was visible for several hours. Thousands of different size meteorites were found in the areas south-southwest of Chelyabinsk. A powerful airburst, which was formed due to meteoroid energy deposition, shattered thousands of windows and doors in Chelyabinsk and wide surroundings, with flying glass injuring many residents. The entrance and destruction of the 500-kt Chelyabinsk asteroid produced a number of observable effects, including light and thermal radiation; acoustic, infrasound, blast, and seismic waves; and release of interplanetary substance. This unexpected and unusual event is the most well-documented bolide airburst, and it attracted worldwide attention. The airburst was observed globally by multiple instruments. Analyses of the observational data allowed determination of the size of the body that caused the superbolide, its velocity, its trajectory, its behavior in the atmosphere, the strength of the blast wave, and other characteristics. The entry of the 19-m-diameter Chelyabinsk asteroid provides a unique opportunity to calibrate the different approaches used to model meteoroid entry and to calculate the damaging effects. The recovered meteorite material was characterized as brecciated LL5 ordinary chondrite, in which three different lithologies can be distinguished (light-colored, dark-colored, and impact-melt). The structure and properties of meteorites demonstrate that before encountering Earth, the Chelyabinsk asteroid had experienced a very complex history involving at least a few impacts with other bodies and thermal metamorphism. The Chelyabinsk airburst of February 15, 2013, was exceptional because of the large kinetic energy of the impacting body and the damaging airburst that was generated. Before the event, decameter-sized objects were considered to be safe. With the Chelyabinsk event, it is possible, for the first time, to link the damage from an impact event to a well-determined impact energy in order to assess the future hazards of asteroids to lives and property.

Article

Landslides in the Solar System  

Maria Teresa Brunetti and Silvia Peruccacci

Landslides are mass movements of rock, earth, or debris. All of these surface processes occur under the influence of gravity, meaning that they globally move material from higher to lower places. On planets other than Earth, these structures were first observed in a lunar crater during the Apollo program, but mass movements have been found on many rocky worlds (solid bodies) in the Solar System, including icy satellites, asteroids, and comets. On Earth, landslides have the effect of shaping the landscape more or less rapidly, leaving a signature that is recognized through field surveys and visual analysis or automatic identification on ground-based, aerial, and satellite images. Landslides observed on Earth and on solid bodies of the Solar System can be classified into different types based on their movement and the material involved in the failure. Material is either rock or soil (or both), with a variable fraction of water or ice; a soil mainly composed of sand-sized or finer particles is referred as earth while debris is composed of coarser fragments. The landslide mass may be displaced in several types of movement, classified generically as falling, toppling, sliding, spreading, or flowing. Such diverse characteristics mean that the size of a landslide (e.g., area, volume, fall height, length) can vary widely. For example, on Earth, their area ranges up to 11 orders of magnitude, while their volume varies by 16 orders, from small rock fragments to huge submarine landslides. The classification of extraterrestrial landslides is based on terrestrial analogs having similarities and characteristics that resemble those found on planetary bodies, such as Mars. The morphological classification is made regardless of the geomorphological environment or processes that may have triggered the slope failure. Comparing landslide characteristics on various planetary bodies helps to understand the effect of surface gravity on landslide initiation and propagation—of tremendous importance when designing manned and unmanned missions with landings on extraterrestrial bodies. Regardless of the practical applications of such study, knowing the morphology and surface dynamics that shape solid bodies in the space surrounding the Earth is something that has fascinated the human imagination since the time of Galileo.

Article

Isotopic Dating  

Yuri Amelin

Isotopic dating is the measurement of time using the decay of radioactive isotopes and accumulation of decay products at a known rate. With isotopic chronometers, we determine the time of the processes that fractionate parent and daughter elements. Modern isotopic dating can resolve time intervals of ~1 million years over the entire lifespan of the Earth and the Solar System, and has even higher time resolution for the earliest and the most recent geological history. Using isotopic dates, we can build a unified scale of time for the evolution of Earth, the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, and expand it as samples from other planets become available for study. Modern geochronology and cosmochronology rely on isotopic dating methods that are based on decay of very long-lived radionuclides: 238U, 235U, 40K, 87Rb, 147Sm, etc. to stable radiogenic nuclides 206Pb, 207Pb, 40K, 40Ca, 87Sr, 143Nd, and moderately long-lived radionuclides: 26Al, 53Mn, 146Sm, 182Hf, to stable nuclides 26Mg, 53Cr, 142Nd, 182W. The diversity of physical and chemical properties of parent (radioactive) and daughter (radiogenic) nuclides, their geochemical and cosmochemical affinities, and the resulting diversity of processes that fractionate parent and daughter elements, allows direct isotopic dating of a vast range of earth and planetary processes. These processes include, but are not limited to evaporation and condensation, precipitation and dissolution, magmatism, metamorphism, metasomatism, sedimentation and diagenesis, ore formation, formation of planetary cores, crystallisation of magma oceans, and the timing of major impact events. Processes that cannot be dated directly, such as planetary accretion, can be bracketed between two datable events.