Center for Meteorite Studies

Arizona State University is founded
In 1958, Arizona State College became Arizona State University. In an effort to bolster the research program of the new university, which had yet to confer its first Ph.D., the Coordinator of Research of the University, George A. Boyd, sought promising research avenues. The convergence of two events helped lead ASU down the path of meteorite research. First, Sputnik launched in October 1957, and put space and anything related to it at the forefront of the American conscience. Second, Harvey H. Nininger, the famous meteorite hunter and self-taught meteoriticist, sold a portion of his collection to the British Natural History Museum in 1958. The sale marked a loss for the state of Arizona, as the museum housing Nininger's extensive collection was originally located near Barringer Meteor Crater in northern Arizona (Figure 1) and then, later, in Sedona, Arizona.
 
ASU plans to buy H.H. Nininger's meteorite collection
Boyd was familiar with Nininger's collection and recognized its importance to Arizona and to ASU's pursuit of research in an up-and-coming discipline. Boyd, working with the chair of the Chemistry Department, Clyde A. Crowley, and ASU President Grady Gammage, solicited a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to purchase the remainder of Nininger's collection and bring it to ASU. To bolster its proposal, ASU offered supporting funds from both the ASU Foundation and from Mr. Herbert G. Fales, the vice president of International Nickel Company, who was familiar with Nininger through his own interest in meteorites. The NSF also recognized the importance of keeping the remainder of Nininger's collection in the United States and accepted the ASU proposal on June 8, 1960.
 

Figure 1: American Meteorite Museum, 1946-1953 (from: http://www.jensenmeteorites.com/)
 
Because Crowley was lead faculty on the NSF proposal, the care of the collection and promotion of its study was designated to the Chemistry Department. This was in keeping with the fact that the most well-established scientists studying meteorites at the time were chemists. Furthermore, the NSF required that an Advisory Board, which had members appointed by institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, initially provide guidance on administration of the collection. ASU accepted the NSF guidelines and agreed to hire a director responsible for curating, managing and studying the collection. 
 
 
A new director
With the Nininger collection enroute to ASU, Boyd and the Chair of the Division of Physical Sciences, George M. Bateman, instituted the search for the director. They consulted with Harrison S. Brown, a geochemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology, who was one of the few scientists in the nation actively studying meteorites, to find a worthy candidate. Brown was also familiar with Nininger and his collection; he had obtained samples for study from Nininger and had also visited Nininger's museums with his students. Brown recommended one of those students, Carleton B. Moore, for the directorship. Moore's Ph.D. thesis sought chemical groupings for chondrite meteorites and ultimately helped improve the understanding of chondrite chemical abundances. Acting on behalf of ASU, Fales flew to Wesleyan University where Moore was teaching at the time, to recruit him. Moore agreed to take the position.
 
The ASU Center for Meteorite Studies opens
In Spring 1961, the initial activities of the Center for Meteorite Studies (CMS), christened by new ASU President G. Homer Durham, commenced at ASU. Moore's first task as Director was to organize a symposium on meteorite research which brought together scientists from a wide variety of fields. The proceedings of the conference were published as "Researches on Meteorites" which provides a valuable snapshot of the state-of-the-art knowledge of meteorites at that time. Concurrently, the first Advisory Board met to help formulate the operational guidelines for the CMS. Brown again aided ASU by serving on the Advisory Board, alongside other scientific luminaries such as the Curator of Meteorites of the American Museum of Natural History, Brian Mason, and Alfred O.C. Nier, a pioneer in the development and use of mass spectrometry for geological studies. It is a tribute to the first Advisory Board that much of their input has stood the test of time. For instance, CMS's current scientific loan policy is largely based on the original recommendations of the Advisory Board.
 
 
Getting down to business
The Advisory Board also emphasized the directive from NSF that the collection be "available primarily for purposes of scientific research by qualified scientists throughout the History of the Center". In the formative years of the CMS, Moore acted on this direction in a number of ways. The CMS began loaning collection specimens to qualified scientists for study and even secured a NASA grant to keep the loan service free of charge. Moore also brought a steady stream of world-renowned meteorite scientists to the CMS to work with the collection. Hugo Birger Wiik of the University of Helsinki continued his exhaustive documentation of meteorite compositions during his two year appointment as visiting faculty at ASU. Wiik also introduced the phrase "the only good meteorite is a cutted meteorite" into the CMS lexicon.
 
Vagn F. Buchwald, a metallurgist and leading expert on iron meteorites also joined the CMS as visiting faculty. His work at ASU led to the publication of his definitive work "Handbook of Iron Meteorites" which remains a fundamental reference for meteorite scientists. Moore himself increased the visibility of the CMS by serving as Editor of Meteoritics, the fledgling journal of The Meteoritical Society, and arranging for ASU to publish the journal. The relationship between ASU and Meteoritics continued for twenty years. Additionally, in 1964, ASU hosted the 27th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting.
 
As the CMS's scientific activities expanded, so did the CMS. Moore was able to take on the responsibility for the Meteoritics journal because Boyd, the man behind bringing the Nininger collection to ASU, joined CMS as its Associate Director. Moore added Administrative Assistant Mrs. Joan Wrona, who managed the business of the CMS from its early years into the early 1990s.
 
On the advice of chemistry professor Tommy Thompson, Moore hired Charles (Chuck) F. Lewis, a chemist from the Bureau of Mines in Salt Lake City, UT, as Curator of the collection. Lewis's strong analytical capabilities were scientifically invaluable, particularly after the acquisition of a LECO carbon analyzer, which operated in the CMS analytical laboratory by combusting a sample and then analyzing the resulting products by gas chromatography (Figure 2). Moore and Lewis began by analyzing carbon in iron meteorites, which had not been investigated previously. Once they successfully demonstrated the technique on iron meteorites, they moved onto analyzing a variety of volatiles (e.g., C, N, S) in both iron and chondrite meteorites.
 
In conjunction with its expanded scientific activities, CMS began its foray into educational and public outreach activities with the opening of the CMS Museum in 1967 in the Bateman Physical Sciences C-wing.
 
CMS_lab_ca_1969_small
Figure 2: Researchers in the early, stylish years of the Center. From left: Walter Nichiporuk, Center research associate; Chuck Lewis, Curator; Everett Gibson, graduate student (now a Senior Planetary Scientist at NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center); Carleton Moore, Center Director.
 
 
CMS visits the Moon
The experience and success of the CMS team with analyzing carbon in meteorites led to Moore’s inclusion on the Lunar Sample Preliminary Examination Team (LSPET), the team of scientists assigned to analyze the samples returned by the Apollo astronauts; the first samples returned by the Apollo 11 mission were almost entirely analyzed in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC; now known as Johnson Spaceflight Center) immediately upon return of the lunar samples to Earth. However, because the CMS was the only facility with the analytical machinery in place for proven carbon analyses, Moore flew to Houston to pick up the Apollo 11 samples and brought them back to ASU for analysis. On the evening of Tuesday, October 7, 1969, Moore, Lewis, a LECO salesperson (Mitch Schwartz), and a graduate student (Bob Kelly), crowded into the CMS lab to conduct the first carbon analysis of a lunar sample. Moore’s overwhelming emotion was relief when the first sample, lunar regolith, began to register a reading there was carbon to be had in the lunar samples and they were analyzing it!
 
As the Apollo 11 analyses were underway at the CMS, the rapidly approaching launch of Apollo 12 compelled Moore to work quickly to recreate the analytical setup from the CMS at the LRL so that his future LSPET analyses could be done in Houston. Once the necessary laboratory equipment was established in Houston (Figure 3), Moore traveled there for each lunar sample release, leaving on a Friday night and returning on a Sunday night so as not to affect his CMS directorship and teaching duties. After Apollo 14, the lunar samples were no longer deemed a potential biological hazard because the likelihood of lunar organics or life forms was eliminated by analyses of the Apollo 11, 12 and 14 samples. Moore and his team carried out the carbon analyses for LSPET on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 samples at ASU. Moore and the CMS team ultimately analyzed over 200 lunar samples.
 
These analyses, along with discussions with ASU Department of Geology colleague Jack Larimer as well as the data from other LSPET researchers, helped Moore and his team understand the sources of lunar carbon. Specifically, they found that carbon from cosmic rays and solar wind is implanted into the lunar surface samples. The analyses of Apollo samples not only bolstered the reputation of the CMS as a research center, they also set the precedent for the study of all types of planetary materials by CMS researchers in the future.
 
LRL for web
Figure 3: Moore, Lewis and Gibson (left to right) pose in front of their analytical setup in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston.
 
 
Organics in meteorites
In 1969, as the world awaited the first lunar landing, a pair of meteorites serendipitously fell that would establish another research specialty for CMS and ASU. On February 8, the Allende meteorite fell in Mexico and on September 28, the Murchison meteorite fell in Australia (Figure 4).
 
Both Allende and Murchison are carbonaceous chondrites, primitive meteorites containing the first solids to form in the Solar System along with the carbon that gives them their classification. In the months after its fall, Moore obtained significant quantities of Allende through two mineral dealers, Benny Finn and Susie Davis. Two of Moore’s students, Ron Gooley and Bob Kelly, also visited Mexico and purchased Allende pieces for CMS from locals near the fall site. For Murchison, Moore initially got a small sample from University of Melbourne geochemist John Lovering, who had been a fellow graduate student from Caltech. Lovering also put Moore in contact with locals at the site of the fall, including the family of the postmaster in Murchison from whom Moore purchased several kilograms of the meteorite.
 
NASA had sought analogues of lunar samples to test the laboratories that would analyze the Moon samples, and had come to view meteorites as the most promising candidates. Thus, the new falls provided the perfect opportunity to study fresh meteorites that contained significant amounts of carbon and, possibly, organics. Organics had been sought in meteorites decades earlier but positive identifications were doubted because the samples analyzed were typically taken from the exteriors of meteorites. With such samples there was no way to eliminate the possibility that the organics detected in those studies were from terrestrial contamination. Moore sought to overcome the contamination issue by taking samples from the centers of fully fusion-crusted, minimally cracked specimens of Allende and Murchison.
 
Because the falls of both meteorites were so large (2000 kg for Allende, 100 kg for Murchison), Moore was able to produce multigram (10-15 g) samples of both meteorites for analysis. The large sample sizes were an attempt to ensure that if organics were present in small quantities, enough meteorite would be processed to produce a detectable signal.
 
Murchison small
Figure 4: Flight-oriented Murchison meteorite.
 
Moore provided Keith Kvenvolden, a researcher working together with several others at the Chemical Evolution Branch of NASA Ames Research Center under the direction of Cyril Ponnamperuma, with samples of Murchison for analysis. The Ames lab was one of the labs tasked with analyzing organics in lunar samples upon their return. The results of the Murchison analyses, which were published in Nature in 1970, revealed a clear signal of dozens of amino acids with equal amounts of the left-handed and right-handed versions of the molecules (life as we know it uses exclusively left-handed organic molecules). The ratio of left- to right-handed amino acids and the fact that the number of amino acids discovered was far greater than the 20 or so used by terrestrial life, were used to support the extraterrestrial nature of the amino acids.
 
Because there was still skepticism in the community regarding the Murchison results, Moore enlisted the help of John Cronin, a colleague in the ASU Chemistry Department. Cronin, a classical biochemist, had an amino acid detection technique different from that used at Ames that would allow them to independently confirm the Murchison results. Using this technique, Cronin and Moore reproduced the Ames results for Murchison and got similar results for Murray, another carbonaceous chondrite of the same type as Murchison. They also analyzed Allende and, importantly, they found no amino acids in this meteorite. This result proved that analytical techniques did not introduce contamination into the samples.Inspired by answering the basic question of the extraterrestrial nature of amino acids in meteorites, Cronin turned to identifying and characterizing organics in meteorites. Cronin joined forces with another Chemistry Department colleague, organic chemist George Yuen, and then-postdoctoral researcher (and eventual professor) Sandra Pizzarello. In the subsequent decades, these researchers made a host of significant discoveries, frequently using samples from the CMS collection.
 
They identified carboxylic acids, complex amino acids and aliphatic hydrocarbons in meteorites, and utilized nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to untangle the organic structures in water-insoluble carbon in meteorites. Yuen, Cronin and Pizzarello joined renowned Caltech isotope geochemist Samuel Epstein to uncover large hydrogen and carbon isotopic enrichments in organics extracted from meteorites, further confirming the extraterrestrial origin of the organics. Cronin and Pizzarello, both collaboratively and independently, gained insight into the origin of life’s exclusive use of left-handed organic molecules. Their results included the discovery of asymmetry in the handedness of organic molecules before they fell to Earth and the determination of possible origins of the asymmetry in the interstellar medium. The work on the origin of the exclusively left-handed nature of life’s molecules is important because such homogeneity is indispensable to the structures and functions of terrestrial biopolymers and is assumed to be integral to the emergence of life.Concurrently, Moore and his graduate students were also studying meteorite organics. They found a variety of organic molecules in meteorites including aliphatic amines, acetic acid and formic acid. The discovery of formic acid was important because it was an indirect tracer of the presence of formaldehyde, a basic organic molecule that astronomers had detected in space using spectroscopy.
 
 
The next generation
After more than 40 years of dedicated service, Moore retired from ASU in 2003 and Laurie Leshin, professor in the ASU Department of Geological Sciences and an ASU alumnus, was named CMS Director. Moore serves CMS as the Founding Director to this day, actively participating in CMS education and public outreach activities, and numerous public speaking engagements that reach hundreds of educators, students and members of the public each year.
 
Leshin established the CMS website and enhanced the research mission of the CMS through her cosmochemistry investigations and those of her students, postdoctoral researchers and affiliated colleagues. Primarily, her research group performed microscale analyses of volatiles, rare earth elements, and isotopic systems in a variety of meteorites, using a state-of-the-art Cameca IMS 6f ion microprobe that Leshin helped ASU acquire. She also served as the Principal Investigator of the Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars (SCIM) mission, one of the two finalists for the first NASA Mars Scout Program mission. SCIM would have represented the first sample return mission to Mars, collecting samples of both Martian atmosphere and dust in a Mars fly-by. While CMS Director, Leshin had the honor of serving on President Bush’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, tasked with formulating a coherent space policy for NASA’s manned space activities.
 
Amy Jurewicz, Project Scientist for the Genesis mission that returned solar wind samples to Earth, joined the CMS from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2005. Jurewicz is actively involved with the processing and analysis of the Genesis samples, including creating and validating analytical standards to support measurements made by the Genesis science team, analyzing the abundances of magnesium and iron in the Genesis solar wind samples to understand whether the composition of the solar wind is exactly the same as the Sun’s surface composition, and developing cleaning protocols to remove any contamination introduced into the Genesis samples by its accidental crash landing in the desert of Utah.  Lora (Varley) Bleacher, who obtained her Master’s degree from ASU investigating the correlation between the oxygen isotopic composition of carbonaceous chondrite chondrules and their degree of melting, was named Collections Manager in 2003. Susan Nowak, who started as Leshin’s Program Coordinator in 2002, became the CMS Program Coordinator when Leshin departed ASU to become the Director of Sciences and Exploration at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2005, and is currently the CMS Business Administrator.
 
From 2005-2006, Bleacher and Interim CMS Director Michelle Minitti (formerly a Leshin postdoctoral researcher through ASU’s NASA Astrobiology Institute node and the CMS) kept the CMS moving forward during a period of transition. Together they completed the renovation of the CMS Museum, which had been not been updated since its opening in 1967, by creating new content, graphics and displays (Figure 5). Bleacher and Minitti initiated the biannual CMS Newsletter, created the “Adopt a Meteorite” program and obtained the CMS’s first grant in support of the meteorite collection from Heritage Preservation’s Conservation Assessment Program (CAP). The CAP grant empowered the improvement of CMS collections conditions and techniques. Minitti and Bleacher also acquired the first lunar meteorites for the CMS collection. In addition, Minitti restored the Nininger Meteorite Award for its 40th anniversary and facilitated the transfer of the Dr. Harvey H. Nininger Papers to the care of ASU Archives, and Bleacher led the acquisition of an updated inventory of the CMS collection and made the inventory available online for the first time.
old CMS museum2006-2012 museum
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Figure 5: The CMS Museum 1967-2006 (top) and 2006-2012  (bottom)
 
 
In 2006, Meenakshi (Mini) Wadhwa, then Curator of Meteoritics and Physical Geology at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, was named CMS Director and Professor in ASU’s newly-formed School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). She initiated renovation of CMS laboratories in the Bateman Physical Sciences C-wing for sample processing and classroom space.
 
She also installed a state-of-the-art class 10,000 clean chemistry laboratory (Isotope Cosmochemistry and Geochronology Laboratory, or ICGL; Figure 6) and Thermo Finnegan Neptune Multi-collector Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer with Photon Machines Analyte 193 Laser Ablation System (Figure 6). Wadhwa and her research group are broadly interested in deciphering the origin and evolution of our Solar System and planetary bodies in it through geochemical and isotopic means. They utilize the ICGL to investigate a wide range of Solar System materials, including meteorites of asteroidal and Martian origin, Moon rocks (from the Apollo missions and lunar meteorites), and other samples returned by spacecraft missions such as Genesis and Stardust. In studying these diverse materials, they seek to 1) decipher the processes involved in their formation using trace and minor element distributions and stable isotope systematics; and 2) determine their time scales of formation using a variety of radiogenic isotope chronometers.
 DSCF3125
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Figure 6: The Isotope Cosmochemistry and Geochronology Laboratory
 
In support of her research efforts, Wadhwa brought with her, from The Field Museum, Philip Janney and Rebekah Hines. Until 2012, Janney managed the ICGL while conducting his own research into topics including the study of Mg and Si isotope fractionations in refractory inclusions in chondrites and laboratory-produced analogs to understand the role of evaporation in the history of these earliest-formed solids, the use of short-lived radionuclide systems (e.g., 26Al-26Mg, 60Fe-60Ni) to investigate the formation history of chondrites and differentiated meteorites, and the investigation of the radiogenic isotope geochemistry of the Earth’s mantle. Hines currently serves a multi-disciplinary role in the CMS. While she spends the majority of her time supporting the research performed in the ICGL, laboratory operations, and laser ablation, as well as development and improvement of laboratory techniques, Hines also takes an active role in CMS outreach programs and curation of the meteorite collection, and serves as CMS webmaster.  Also joining CMS from The Field Museum was Wendy Taylor, who served as the CMS Education and Public Outreach Coordinator until 2009.
 
In 2008, the CMS was the recipient of an ASU Women & Philanthropy grant to improve online educational tools and develop loanable teaching modules available to local educators (Figure 7). In 2010, the CMS, in conjunction with the ASU NASA Astrobiology Institute node and The Field Museum, obtained a Nmodule_books_dvdsASA Opportunities in Education and Public Outreach for Earth and Space Science (EPOESS) grant. The EPOESS grant enabled development of Virtual Field Trips to terrestrial field sites of planetary science interest complemented by loanable Experience Boxes filled with hands-on objects from the Virtual Field Trip sites.
 
Figure 7: The contents of a loanable classroom module
 
After Bleacher followed Leshin’s footsteps from the CMS to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 2007, Laurence Garvie joined the CMS as Collection Manager. Garvie’s meteorite research focuses on the composition and structure of carbonaceous materials within primitive meteorites. He has documented the composition, morphology and porosity of globules in a range of carbonaceous chondrites, but the cause behind the different populations he observes in different meteorites remains unknown. Garvie’s active inventory and trade activities rapidly expanded the variety and number of meteorites in the CMS collection, which now consists of over 2000 distinct meteorites. In 2009, he became the first CMS member to find a meteorite outside of the National Science Foundation Antarctic meteorite hunting expeditions attended by both Directors Leshin and Wadhwa. Garvie happened upon Chandler, a ~350 g L6 ordinary chondrite while he and one of his daughters were photographing the desert on a warm winter day. Garvie is also well-known to the meteorite hunting community and the general public through his appearances on the Discovery Science show “Meteorite Men”.
 
 
CMS 50th Anniversary Symposium
On October 21, 2011, the CMS marked its 50th anniversary with a symposium entitled Meteoritics and Cosmochemistry:  Past, Present and Future.  The symposium featured world-renowned invited speakers, including Gerald Wasserburg (California Institute of Technology), Donald Burnett (California Institute of Technology), Andrew Davis (University of Chicago), Caroline Smith (The Natural History Museum, London), Philip Christensen (Arizona State University), and Timothy McCoy (Smithsonian Institute).  The Symposium Introduction was presented by Kip Hodges (Director, ASU School of Earth & Space Exploration), Meenakshi Wadhwa (Director, ASU Center for Meteorite Studies) and Carleton Moore (Founding Director, ASU Center for Meteorite Studies), and can be watched below.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2012, both Michelle Minitti and Philip Janney departed ASU.  Melissa Morris joined the CMS as new Assistant Director, and Steve Romaniello assumed ICGL management responsibilities.  Morris's research focuses on star and planet formation, in particular the use of astrophysical modeling to determine conditions during the birth of planetary systems.  Her specific interests include hydrodynamic modeling (including radiative transfer) of protoplanetary disks and disk processes during planet formation, mainly through the application of mineralogical data of planetary materials.  The oldest known material in our own planetary system can be found in meteorites and, by combining meteoritic data and the results of astrophysical modeling, Dr. Morris endeavors to further our understanding of the conditions that existed in the early solar nebula and exist in extrasolar disks today.

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CMS Moves to ISTB4
 istb4a
Figure 8: Artist's rendition of the Interdisciplinary Science Building IV on the ASU Tempe Campus
 
In May, 2012, the Center moved from the location it had occupied since its founding in 1961 (Physical Sciences C-Wing) to a new, modern research facility across ASU's Tempe Campus:  Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 (ISTB4). 
 
ISTB4 was purposely constructed to house the School of Earth & Space Exploration, including the Center for Meteorite Studies, and Fulton School of Engineering (you can read about the logistics of moving the Center's meteorite collection in our Fall 2012 newsletter, here).
 
The new climate-controlled collection storage vault is currently the most state-of-the-art facility of its kind, and includes specialized steel specimen cabinets, nitrogen dry-environment cabinets to minimize contamination of sensitive specimens, and heavy-duty full-extension shelving cabinets for oversize meteorites.  A grand total of 4,000 square feet of collection storage provides the CMS with the necessary space to properly house every piece in the current collection, as well as room to grow!
 
 
 
The new Center for Meteorite Studies also includes a Meteorite Gallery on the second floor of ISTB4, where CMS is able to display more specimens than ever before.
 
 
The future
With high levels of activity in research, collections and public outreach endeavors, the future of the CMS is bright, and the Center's new venue will serve as a launching pad for the next 50 great years of the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies!
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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