A 4.6 billion year old meteorite found in a field in Gloucestershire, England, is likely a remnant of cosmic debris left behind by the birth of the solar system and could answer questions about how life began on Earth.
It was discovered by Derek Robson of the East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organization (EAARO) in February 2021, after traveling more than 110 million kilometers from its primordial home between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt.
Now scientists at Loughborough University are analyzing the small, charcoal-colored space rock to determine its structure and composition in an attempt to answer questions about the early Universe and possibly our own origins.
With colleagues at EAARO, researchers are using techniques such as electron microscopy to study surface morphology at micron and nanometer scales; and vibrational spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction, which provide detailed information on chemical structure, phase and polymorphism, crystallinity and molecular interactions, to determine structure and composition.
So far, they have found that the incredibly delicate sample, which looks like dust and particles of concrete loosely held together, has never suffered the violent cosmic collisions that most ancient space debris suffered when they crashed to create the planets and moons of our solar system.
âThe internal structure is brittle and weakly bonded, porous with cracks and fissures,â said Shaun Fowler, optical and electron microscopy specialist at the Loughborough Materials Characterization Center (LMCC).
“He doesn’t appear to have undergone a thermal metamorphosis, which means he’s been out there beyond Mars, intact, since before one of the planets was created, which means we have the rare opportunity. to examine a piece of our primordial past.
âMost of the meteorite is made up of minerals like olivine and phyllosilicates, along with other mineral inclusions called chondrules, which, for example, can be minerals like magnetite or calcite.
âBut the makeup is unlike anything you might find here on Earth and potentially unlike any other meteorite we’ve found – possibly containing unknown chemistry or physical structure never seen in other recorded samples. “
Ancient rock is a rare example of carbonaceous chondrite, a type of meteorite that often contains biological material. Less than 5% of meteorites that fall on Earth fall into this classification.
The identification of organic compounds would support the idea that the first meteorites carried amino acids – the building blocks of life – to provide the primordial soup of Earth where life began.
“Carbonaceous chondrites contain organic compounds, including amino acids, that are found in all living things,” said Derek Robson, director of astrochemistry at EAARO, who found the meteorite and will soon join Loughborough University as an academic visitor for collaborative research.
“Being able to identify and confirm the presence of such compounds from material that existed before Earth was born would be an important step in understanding how life began.”
Professor Sandie Dann of the School of Science’s chemistry department first worked with Derek in 1997 and has been in regular contact with him ever since.
She said, âIt’s a scientific fairy tale. First, your friend tracks down a meteorite, then finds it and then offers you some of this alien material to analyze.
âAt this point we’ve learned a lot about it, but we’ve barely scratched the surface.
âThere is huge potential to learn more about ourselves and our solar system – this is an amazing project to participate in. “
Jason Williams, EAARO CEO, added: âOne of EAARO’s main goals is to open the doors of science and technology to those who may not have the opportunity.
âDerek and I felt that our new discovery could help us pursue these goals by opening up research opportunities in meteorological science.
âWe have carefully chosen Loughborough, along with the University of Sheffield, a number of business partners and a handful of foreign specialists to work with us on this exciting project as we continue to excite and inspire young people and less young by promoting and encouraging space research and STEM are subject to a wider community.
Header image credit: Derek Robson