World Space Week: Exploring the meteorite collection

To celebrate World Space Week 2021, Head of Earth Sciences Collections and Principal Curator of Meteorites, Caroline Smith, takes a look at just some of the incredible collaborations between the Natural History Museum and some of our future neighbours at Harwell Campus, the hub of space research in the UK.

Caroline Smith

Here at the Natural History Museum we are lucky enough to have one of the largest and most important collections of meteorites in the world, made up of over 5000 samples from 2000 individual meteorites. We carry out diverse research into the solar system, planets, asteroids, moons and how they came into existence.

As with all scientific research, collaboration is at the heart of this, bringing together our unique collections, expertise and understanding of planetary systems with a wide range of partners to uncover new information about the solar system in which we live. How was it formed? How did the Earth get its water? Are there signs of past life on Mars? Could there be extractable resources in space? Our research looks to explore all these questions and more.

A meteorite sample is ready to be analysed at Diamond Light Source © Ashley King

Uncovering the lives of meteorites at Diamond Light Source

Ashley King and Paul Schofield are both Museum researchers whose expertise focuses on understanding the mineral and chemical properties of meteorites, asteroids, and comets to uncover more about where they came from, and the environmental conditions found there.

To do this they look at these extra-terrestrial rocks in exceptional detail, often down to the atomic scale. But this can’t be done with just any standard laboratory microscope… Cue a synchrotron (unfortunately not a new Transformer).

They have been analysing meteorites at the UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, at Harwell Campus since it opened to the scientific community in 2007, and were a core part of advisory groups during its development. This vast facility works as an extremely powerful microscope that can be used to study anything from rocks to engines to biological organisms.

The synchrotron accelerates electrons around a 561m tunnel, resulting in light 10 billion times brighter than the sun being given off. This energy, usually in the form of x-rays, is directed through samples being analysed to produce highly detailed 3D images of their external and internal structures. This can reveal mineral structures, chemicals or the presence of different elements that are key to the development of life. Importantly this is all achieved without the need to break up or destroy valuable collection specimens.

Paul Schofield’s research group was one of the first to use the facility and has carried out research into everything from iron meteorites to more recently investigating the origins of water in Martian samples. This week they have again been one of the first research groups to use a newly opened beamline which will enable them to see reactions within meteorite samples in real-time. They have taken along parts of the Winchcombe meteorite, now of international fame, to discover more about this rare specimen and where it came from. As the meteorite is a carbonaceous chondrite, it is one of the most pristine meteorite types, thought to contain all the materials that were present during the formation of the solar system.

Winchcome meteorite © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Tracking fireballs across the UK

The Natural History Museum is also a member of the UK Fireball Alliance, a group which aims to recover freshly fallen meteorites in the UK through a coordinated network of meteor cameras, one of which will shortly be installed at Harwell Campus to extend the network’s observational coverage.

These cameras record incoming meteors to the Earth’s atmosphere, enabling their paths to be calculated accurately and the landing point estimated. This increases the chances of finding and retrieving meteorites before they become contaminated, or minerals are dissolved by rainfall.

Only about 40 of approximately 65000 meteorites that have been discovered on Earth have successfully been tracked in this way. The most recent of these is the Winchcombe meteorite which was spotted in the sky on the night of 28 February 2021 and later brought to the Museum for analysis.

As mentioned, the Winchcombe meteorite is an extremely rare type of meteorite called a carbonaceous chondrite, one of the most primitive materials in the solar system. These meteorites are particularly interesting as they are thought to be similar to samples from the Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return missions, giving important clues about the origins of Earth and the solar system. The Winchcombe meteorite also provides a good opportunity to test out experimental methods before applying them to those delivered by Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-Rex, given the large quantities recovered – more than 500g of the Winchcombe meteorite was collected in comparison to the approximately 5g delivered back by Hayabusa2.

Basaltic landscape in Iceland © Robin Armstrong

Test environments for future space missions

Colleagues and I have also been working closely with the European Space Agency (ESA) on its Exploration Sample Analogue Collection and Curation Facility for some years now. These collections are essential for planning and preparing for future space missions.

As the exploration and analysis of the geology and environments of space is vastly different to what scientists are used to on Earth, it is important to carry out tests and analyses beforehand to ensure they have the correct equipment to explore and investigate new areas and samples. In an ideal world these tests would be carried out on samples that are identical to those expected on the mission, but due to the rarity of these on Earth that’s not usually possible. Scientists therefore rely on ‘analogues’ – sites, materials or objects that have a similar composition and/or properties to a given extra-terrestrial site.

We have been working on collating material or object analogues of the surfaces of Mars, Phobos, Deimos, asteroids and the Moon that can be used by engineers and scientists to develop technologies and analysis techniques for future robotic exploration missions. The ESA Sample Analogue Curation Facility now has over 200 individual samples covering a range of planetary surface types and materials.

The diversity of the work carried out in the meteorite collections and in planetary science research never fails to amaze me, to find out more take a look at our website. Reflecting on just some of this research for World Space week is a great opportunity to look back on successes and future opportunities, which I only hope will grow with the development of our new site at Harwell Campus.

To find out more about our programme to develop a new science and digitisation centre visit the website and join our mailing list.

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