Last Monday night there were numerous reports of a large meteor over Scotland. What is a meteor? And how can they help us unravel the secrets of the solar system?
Most meteors are tiny specks of dust from space that generate a bright trail in the sky as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The largest meteors – often called fireballs – can sometimes even result in meteorites landing on the ground (note, a meteorite is what a meteor becomes once it has hit the ground; a meteor is what a meteoroid becomes once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere).
Some meteorites, called CI chondrites, contain quite a lot of water; more than 15% of their total weight. Scientists have suggested that impacts by meteorites like these could have delivered water to the early Earth. The water in CI chondrites is locked up in minerals produced by aqueous alteration processes on the meteorite’s parent asteroid, billions of years ago. It has been very hard to study these minerals due to their small size, but new work carried out by the Meteorite Group at the Natural History Museum has been able to quantify the abundance of these minerals.
The minerals produced by aqueous alteration (including phyllosilicates, carbonates, sulphides and oxides) are typically less than one micron in size (the width of a human hair is around 100 microns!). They are very important, despite their small size, because they are major carriers of water in meteorites. We need to know how much of a meteorite is made of these minerals in order to fully understand fundamental things such as the physical and chemical conditions of aqueous alteration, and what the original starting mineralogy of asteroids was like.