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Scientists have identified two minerals never before seen on Earth in a 15.2-metric-ton (33,510-pound) 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 New release from the University of Alberta.
Chris Hurd, curator of the university’s meteorite collection, received samples of the space rock so he could classify them. As he examined it, something unusual caught his eye – some parts of the specimen were not recognized by the microscope. He then sought advice from Andrew Locock, head of the university’s Electron Microprobe Laboratory, since Lowcock had 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 unusual. Most of the time it takes a lot more work than that to say there’s new metal.”
The name of one of the minerals – elaliite – is derived from the space object itself, which has been called the “El Ali” meteorite since it was found near the town of El Ali in central Somalia.
The second herd is named the Elkenstantonites after Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the Planetary Initiative at Arizona State University. Elkins-Tanton is also a Hakim Professor in the university’s College of Earth and Space Exploration and principal investigator for the upcoming NASA self task – a trip to an asteroid rich in minerals 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 isotope is iron meteorites,” Hurd said. “It made sense to name a mineral after her and to recognize her contributions to science.”
The International Mineralogical Association’s approval of the two new minerals 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, Las Vegas.
“When 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 this exciting: In this particular meteorite you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”
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 research geochemist in the Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences at UCLA. “They can create new compounds—one, just to see what is only physically possible as a research interest, and the other…they’ll say, ‘We’re looking for a compound that has certain properties for some practical or commercial application, such as conductivity, high stress, or a high melting temperature.'”
“It is serendipitous that a researcher finds a mineral in a previously unknown meteorite or terrestrial rock, and then many times later, the same compound will be previously created by materials scientists.”
Schooner 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. Hence, the two new phosphates tell us about the oxidation processes that occurred in the material of the meteorite. It remains to be seen whether the oxidation occurred in space or on Earth, after the fall, but as far as I know many meteorite phosphates formed in space. Either way. It is likely that water was the reactant that caused the oxidation.”
The findings were presented in November at the University of Alberta’s Space Exploration Symposium. These discoveries, Rubin said, “expand our perspective on what natural materials can be found and formed in the solar system.”
The meteorite of God from which the minerals came, Hurd said, appears to have been sent to China in search of a buyer.
Meanwhile, researchers are still analyzing minerals — and possibly a third element — to see what conditions the meteorite was in when the space rock was formed. He added that the newly discovered minerals could have exciting 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.