June 20, 2008

Meteorite May Provide Clues To Birth Of Solar System

London's Natural History Museum has purchased a rare type of meteorite that could hold clues to the birth of our Solar System.

The meteorite was obtained from a private collection. The Ivuna meteorite has the same chemical make-up from which the Solar System formed 4.5 billion years ago.

The meteorite landed in Tanzania as one 705g stone in 1938 and has since been split into two samples.

Parts of the UK sample will be removed for study. Most Ivuna samples are held in private collections, or by the Tanzanian government. The UK sample is the largest in any private collection.

What makes the Ivuna so rare is that its chemical make-up matches the Sun and only nine of the 35,000 known meteorites, or 0.03%, have this solar composition.

"These types of meteorite are very susceptible to alteration on Earth. Changes in humidity, for example, can change their composition," said Dr Caroline Smith, meteorite curator at the Natural History Museum (NHM).

"But this meteorite is important as it fell relatively recently and has been kept under nitrogen in a sealed environment for the last two or three decades.

"It's a particularly important specimen to science because it's been so well preserved. We're all incredibly excited about it because it's so pristine."

Monica Grady, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University in Milton Keynes, said this is fantastic for meteor experts in the UK.  "This material represents the crumbs from the foundation of the Solar System. It's an unbelievable opportunity to study it in close-up," she said.

"The museum has been very bold in acquiring it."

Experts hope that Ivuna may help answer how the chemical building blocks for life came to Earth.

In a study done in 2001, important components of so-called pre-genetic material, the amino acids b-alanine and glycine, were found in Ivuna.

At Imperial College London, scientists confirmed that a meteorite called Murchison contained extra-terrestrial molecules that were the precursors to DNA and RNA.

The specimen won't only be used for research; the NHM is planning a new meteorites gallery in which Ivuna will be one of the main attractions.

"The plan is to take the meteorite to Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where we'll have a 20g piece taken off and that will be sub-divided into two 10g pieces," said Dr. Smith.

"One piece will be put to one side. The other will be divided into 200mg allocations - less than the size of your fingernail - for researchers to study."


Image Caption: The rare Ivuna meteorite is flown in to the Museum from the USA. It may hold secrets about the birth of the solar system.


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Cepsar, Open University