The cosmos is strewn with stony fragments. These pieces of “celestial debris,” also called meteoroids, zoom through space and occasionally pierce through Earth’s atmosphere, igniting in the process.
These incandescent streaks are known as meteors. Although many disintegrate before nearing Earth’s surface, some endure the fiery descent. The fragments that impact Earth are termed meteorites, and they are a treasure trove for scientists.
Meteorites offer clues about the universe’s chemical makeup. In a recent revelation, a meteorite that crashed in Somalia in 2020 has been found to house two minerals previously unknown on Earth.
The meteorite in focus is the ninth heftiest on record, tipping the scales at an impressive 15 tonnes (16.5 U.S. tons), and was located near El Ali in Somalia’s Hiiraan region.
A portion of this extraterrestrial stone, weighing 2.5 ounces, was extracted for scientific analysis and shipped to the University of Alberta. Chris Herd, a professor at the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and caretaker of the university’s Meteorite Collection, embarked on unraveling its composition.
Herd’s investigation identified the meteorite as a specimen of the “Iron, IAB complex” category, a group that includes 350 known examples. Though many in this class have been examined, this particular piece was unique, bearing two minerals not recognized on Earth.
Minerals, which are individual elements or compounds, serve as the fundamental constituents of rocks – like quartz or feldspar, which are ubiquitous. However, the minerals uncovered in this meteorite do not occur naturally on Earth.
Generally, confirming new minerals in meteorites is a lengthy process, but these were quickly verified since they have been previously synthesized by scientists. There’s also a third potential new mineral awaiting further research for verification.
Andrew Locock, who manages the University’s Electron Microprobe Laboratory, supported Herd in pinpointing these new minerals, which have been dubbed elaliite and elkinstantonite.
The first pays homage to the meteorite’s discovery site near El Ali, and the second honors Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative, School of Earth and Space Exploration professor, and lead investigator for NASA’s forthcoming Psyche mission.
This meteorite might hold additional cosmic secrets, yet future studies might pose challenges. The sizable stone has been transported to China, potentially for a private sale, and a new owner might not permit further extractions. Despite this, research will persist with the small sample and other meteoritic material in the university’s possession.