Meteorites: photographs of the solar system

Planetary scientists are often found droning on about meteorites, but what makes them so interesting and useful to study? To explain this, we have to understand what a meteorite actually represents to scientists. This can be most easily described by using photography as a parallel.

Widmanstatten pattern on Gibeon

Widmanstatten patterning on the iron meteorite Gibeon – crystal structure and size can tell us a lot about the formation processes of these meteorites, such as cooling rates and mineralogy to name just a few.

Photographs are snapshots in time, and we use them to remind ourselves about what the time they were taken was like. Now, imagine someone gave you a photograph that you had never seen before; you don’t know the people within the frame and as such, their life, nor do you know the location it was taken. But wait, because you may be able to work out some of these mysteries by analysing the details of the photograph. You could guess at the age of the photo, based on the clothing they were wearing or the colouration of the photo. You might be able to identify landmarks in the background, to help work out where it was taken. You may even be able to theorise about the activity that was going on at the time the photo was taken. All of these have direct parallels to the way scientists use meteorites.

Allende (CV3) carbonaceous chondrite

Allende, a type CV3 carbonaceous chondrite – This meteorite is thought to have formed during the formation of the planets. In essence, this is a ‘photo’ of the material that now makes up the terrestrial planets.

When dust, rock grains and metals accrete to form a meteorite, they are essentially taking a photograph of the place they were formed. The material that was present and the amounts of it that were available, the gases that were present in the environment at the time, even the processes that were affecting the material, these are all preserved within a meteorite. The information contained may not be immediately visible, in fact it quite often requires hi-tech instrumentation to access, but it is there nonetheless. Quite a large amount of information is found in the gases contained inside the meteorite. These gases have unique properties which preserve different information about the meteorite’s origins.

The parallel can be taken even further if we consider what happens to both meteorites and photographs if they are exposed to environments that would alter them. If we were to expose a photo to a flame, there wouldn’t be much left to tell us about the origins of the photo. Equally, exposing a meteorite to heat quite often leads to some of these trapped gases escaping, altering what we are able to tell about the meteorite’s origins. This is particularly the case if the meteorite melts. In the same way that pigments and paper decay when exposed to things like water and oxygen, so do the minerals within meteorites.

Like the historians trying to unravel the past, if we hope to understand how we came to be on earth, how the planets and maybe even the stars formed, our best source of information may well be the ‘photographs’ of the solar system that we call meteorites.


About Mark Nottingham

Mark is a PhD student in the Isotope Geochemistry and Cosmochemistry group at UoM. Primarily working on the RIMSKI and RELAX noble gas instruments.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Background Science, Laboratory, Space and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Meteorites: photographs of the solar system

  1. Very Informative post… Thanks for sharing information with us.. Waiting for your next share.. Keep sharing..

  2. I think I have found a meteorite , I found it in the mountains in Georgia. It has passed all the test that are capable at home. Do you recommend a place where I can bring it to confirm its identity?I found it with a whites metel detector ,its magnetic and heavy compared to ordinary rocks.

    • Mark Nottingham says:

      Hi Arthur, we are actually based in the UK so I can’t really advise where would be best to get to analyzed. However, I will ask around and get a reply to you later this week (we’re away at a conference at the moment)

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