Photo: Nick Gessler/Duke University.
Scientists have identified two minerals never before seen on Earth in a 15.2-metric-ton meteorite.
The minerals came from a 70-gram (nearly 2.5 ounce) piece of meteorite, which was discovered in Somalia in 2020 and is the ninth-largest meteorite ever found, according to a University of Alberta press release.
Chris Hurd, curator of the university’s meteorite collection, was given samples of the space rock so he could classify them. As he was examining it, something unusual caught his eye – some parts of the specimen could not be identified under a microscope.
Next, the scientist sought advice from Andrew Lowcock, head of the university’s Electron Microprobes Laboratory, where Lowcock has experience describing new minerals.
“The first day he did some analyses, he said, ‘You have at least two new minerals in there,'” Hurd, a professor in the university’s department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said in a statement.
“That was extraordinary. Most of the time, it takes a lot more work than that to say there is new metal.”
The name of the mineral – elaliite – was derived from the space object itself, which has been called the El Ali meteorite since it was found near the city of El Ali in central Somalia.
He named the second “Kenstantonites” flock, after Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University.
Elkins-Tanton is also Professor Regent in the university’s College of Earth and Space Exploration and the principal investigator on NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission — a journey to a mineral-rich asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, according to the space agency.
“Linde has done a lot of work on how planetary cores form, how iron and nickel cores form, and our closest thing to iron meteorites,” Hurd said. “It makes sense to name a mineral after you and to recognize your contributions to science.”
The approval of the two new minerals by the International Mineralogical Association in November of this year “suggests that the work is strong,” said Oliver Schooner, a mineralogist and research professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
“Anytime you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rock, were different from what was found before,” Hurd said.
“That’s what makes it exciting: In this particular meteorite, you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”
Minerals created in a lab
Lowcock’s quick identification was possible because similar minerals had been created synthetically before, and he was able to match the composition of the newly discovered minerals to their man-made counterparts, according to the University of Alberta release.
“Materials scientists do this all the time,” said Alan Rubin, a meteorite researcher and former assistant professor and geochemist in the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences at UCLA.
He added, “It is a coincidence that a researcher finds a mineral in a meteorite or a previously unknown terrestrial rock, and often this same compound has been previously created by materials scientists.”
Schöner said both of the new minerals are iron phosphates. Phosphate is a salt or ester of phosphoric acid.
“Phosphates in iron meteorites are by-products: they are formed through the oxidation of phosphides…which are rare primary components of iron meteorites,” he said via email.
“Thus, the two new phosphates tell us about the oxidation processes that occurred in the material of the meteorite. Whether the oxidation occurred in space or on Earth after the collapse remains to be seen, but as far as I know, many meteorite phosphates formed in space. Either way, it is probably water. It is the reagent that caused the oxidation.”
The findings were presented in November at the University of Alberta’s Space Exploration Symposium. Rubin said the findings “broaden our perspective on what natural materials can be found and formed in the solar system.”
The Most High meteorite, from which the minerals came, was apparently sent to China in search of a buyer, Hurd said.
In the meantime, researchers are still analyzing the minerals — and possibly a third — to see what conditions were present in the meteorite when the space rock was formed. He added that the newly discovered minerals could have interesting implications for the future.
“Whenever a new material is known, materials scientists are also interested because of the potential uses in a wide variety of things in society,” Hurd said.
Credits: CNN Brazil.
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