ASU receives the first extraterrestrial mud ball in 50 years

On April 23 at 9:09 p.m. local time, residents of Aguas Zarcas, a small town in Costa Rica, saw a large “fireball” in the sky.

The reported fireball was a meteor about the size of a washing machine. As it entered Earth’s atmosphere, it broke apart and rained hundreds of meteorites in and around the small town, including a two-pound rock that crashed through the roof of a local house, smashing the dining room table below.

While meteorite falls happen around the world on a regular basis, early reports indicated that this meteorite belongs to a special group called "carbonaceous chondrites" that are rich in organic compounds and full of water. 

“Many carbonaceous chondrites are mud balls that are between 80 and 95% clay,” said Laurence Garvie, a research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and a curator for Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies. “Clays are important because water is an integral part of their structure.”

From these early reports, the race was on to collect samples and bring them back to labs around the world for scientific analysis.

“These had to be collected quickly and before they got rained on,” Garvie explained. “Because they are mostly clay, as soon as these types of meteorites get wet, they fall apart.”

Fortunately, meteorite collectors had five rain-free days in the region to collect samples from the fall. About 55 pounds of meteorites (collectively the size of a large beach ball) have been recovered so far. 

As of last week, ASU has acquired several meteorite samples from the Aguas Zarcas fall, which were donated by meteorite collector Michael Farmer. Farmer traveled to Costa Rica immediately after the meteorite fall to purchase and collect the meteorites from residents of Aguas Zarcas. A private donor has also provided funds for ASU to purchase additional meteorite samples from this fall. 

Aguas Zarcas meteorite samples, donated to ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies by private collector, Michael Farmer. Photo: ASU/CMS/Garvie.

ASU leads classification of Aguas Zarcas meteorite fall

Once Garvie had the donated samples, he rushed back to the lab on ASU’s Tempe campus to run the analyses needed to determine the classification of the meteorites. He is now leading an international classification effort.

“I was in the lab by 5 a.m. the next morning after picking up the samples to get them ready for the initial analyses,” Garvie said. “Classification of new meteorites can be like a race with other institutions, and I needed ASU to be first so that we’ll have the recognition of being the collection that holds and curates the type specimen material.” 

ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies has a specialized curatorial facility for meteorites, one that rivals many other international facilities. In particular, ASU has nitrogen cabinets for storage of particularly air-sensitive meteorites where the nitrogen atmosphere preserves the meteorites and stops their degradation. 

“If you left this carbonaceous chondrite in the air, it would lose some of its extraterrestrial affinities,” Garvie explained. “These meteorites have to be curated in a way that they can be used for current and future research, and we have that ability here at ASU.” 

For the meteorite classification process, Garvie is working with Karen Ziegler from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico. In her lab, Ziegler analyzed the samples for their oxygen isotopes, which helps determine what characteristics this meteorite shares with other carbonaceous chondrites.

Garvie is also working with ASU School of Molecular Sciences’ Professor Emerita Sandra Pizzarello, an organic chemist known for her work with carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. Pizzarello’s analysis is helping to determine the organic inventory of the sample, which may provide insights into whether these types of meteorites provided the ingredients for the origins of life on Earth. 

Ultimately, the meteorites will be approved, classified and named by the Meteoritical Society’s nomenclature committee, an international team of 12 scientists who approve all new classified meteorites. This approval is the first and most important step of an in-depth scientific analysis.

  • A meteorite from the Aguas Zarcas fall pierced the roof of a doghouse, narrowly missing the sleeping dog, aptly named Rocky. Mike Farmer, who donated samples of the meteorite to ASU, is pictured here in Aguas Zarcas with "Rocky" and another dog, both unharmed by the meteorite fall. Photo courtesy of Michael Farmer

Nature has said, 'Here you are!'

Because of their water-rich composition, carbonaceous chondrites can provide insights into how we may be able to extract water from asteroids in space as a resource beyond Earth.

“Having this meteorite in our lab gives us the ability, with further analysis, to ultimately develop technologies to extract water from asteroids in space,” Garvie said. 

Garvie and his team, as well as scientists around the world, will be analyzing these meteorites — for years to come — for new insights about water extraction from meteorites as well as insights into the origins of the solar system and the organic process.  

“Nature has said ‘here you are,’ and now we have to be smart enough to tease apart the individual components and understand what they are telling us,” Garvie said.

Carbonaceous chondrites

The Costa Rican meteorite comes from an asteroid that was an early planet (planetesimal) that had water and organic materials. “It formed in an environment free of life, then was preserved in the cold and vacuum of space for 4.56 billion years, and then dropped in Costa Rica last week,” Garvie explained.

By happenstance, the last carbonaceous chondrites meteorite fall of this significance happened 50 years ago in 1969 and was curated by another ASU professor and founding director of ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies, Carleton Moore, who is now an ASU emeritus Regents’ Professor. The meteorite fell to Earth near Murchison, Australia, in 1969 and is one of the most studied meteorites in the world.

"Carbonaceous chondrites are relatively rare among meteorites but are some of the most sought-after by researchers because they contain the best-preserved clues to the origin of the solar system,” center Director Meenakshi Wadhwa said. “This new meteorite represents one of the most scientifically significant additions to our wonderful collection in recent years.”

The other ASU connection with this recent Costa Rican meteorite fall is that the samples closely resemble what scientists are discovering on the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, on which ASU has the Phil Christensen-designed Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES). This instrument is making mineral and temperature maps of the asteroid Bennu, which is thought to be composed of a remnant carbonaceous chondrite planetesimal. 

Sample on display and open to the public at ASU

Samples from this meteorite fall, and many others, are on display for the public on the ASU Tempe campus in the Center for Meteorite Studies collection on the second floor of the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV. 

ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies is home to the world’s largest university-based meteorite collection, with over 40,000 individual specimens representing more than 2,100 distinct meteorite falls and finds. The collection is actively used for geological, planetary and space science research at ASU and throughout the world.

Karin Valentine
Media Relations & Marketing Manager
School of Earth and Space Exploration

Team finds tiny fragment of a comet inside a meteorite

Center Research Scientist Dr. Jemma Davidson is part of a team that discovered a carbon-rich fragment inside the primitive asteroidal meteorite, LaPaz Icefield 02342, found in Antarctica.  The team was led by the Carnegie Institution for Science's Larry Nittler, and the discovery was recently published in Nature Astronomy.

Read the article in Nature Astronomy here!

Read more and see photos at ASU Now (excerpt below)!

Comet Halley 1
Thumbnail of image Comet P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW) Large Scale Phenomena Network.

A tiny piece of the building blocks from which comets formed has been discovered inside a primitive meteorite. The discovery by a Carnegie Institution for Science-led team, including a researcher now at Arizona State University, was published April 15 in Nature Astronomy.

The finding could offer clues to the formation, structure and evolution of the solar system.

"The meteorite is named LaPaz Icefield 02342," said research scientist Jemma Davidson, of ASU's Center for Meteorite Studies in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. "The name comes from where it was found in Antarctica's LaPaz Icefield."

She adds that it belongs to a class of primitive carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that have undergone minimal changes since they formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, likely beyond the orbit of Jupiter.
Carbon-rich fragment
The carbon-rich fragment the material comets are built from is colored red in this scanning electron microscope image. The scale bar shows its size. Image by Larry Nittler/Carnegie Institution for Science.

 

2018 Nininger Meteorite Award winners announced

The ASU Center for Meteorite Studies is pleased to announce that Jonathan Lewis, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at Johnson Space Center is the recipient of the 2018 Nininger Meteorite Award, and Zachary Torrano, a Ph.D. Candidate in the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration received an Honorable Mention for the award.

The Nininger Meteorite Award recognizes outstanding student achievement in the meteoritical sciences, as embodied by an original research paper.

Jonathan LewisJonathan’s paper “Chondrule porosity in the L4 chondrite Saratov: Dissolution, chemical transport, and fluid flow” (coauthored by Rhian Jones and Serafina Garcea) takes a close look at chondrule porosity to understand the chemical and physical effects of fluids present during thermal metamorphism.

Zack TorranoZack's paper "Titanium isotope signatures of calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions from CV and CK chondrites: Implications for early Solar System reservoirs and mixing", investigates whether the isotope compositions of previously analyzed calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs) are representative of CAIs from other chondrites and chondrite groups and, by extension, the broader CAI-forming region in the solar nebula.

Read more about the award, and this year's recipients' research, here!

Langwies

May's Meteorite of the Month is Langwies, an ordinary (H6) chondrite found May 19, 1985, just south of the village of Langwies, canton Graubunden, Switzerland.

Langwies is a unique meteorite in that the only piece known, a 16.5 g weathered and fusion crusted piece, was found in a glacial moraine.

To date, 11 meteorites have been found in Switzerland, including 7 ordinary chondrites, 3 iron meteorites, and 1 pallasite.

Langwies

New ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration director selected

Professor and cosmochemist Meenakshi Wadhwa has been selected as the new director for Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration beginning in July of this year. 

“Professor Wadhwa is an outstanding scholar with a proven record of scientific leadership, particularly at NASA,” said Nancy Gonzales, dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “She is well positioned to lead the school in becoming a global leader in Earth and space science and education.”

Meenakshi WadhwaWadhwa has been with ASU since 2006 as the director of the Center for Meteorite Studies and professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. She is best known for developing novel methodologies for high precision isotope analyses related to her research in the time scales and processes involved in the formation and evolution of the solar system.

“I’m incredibly energized by the great momentum that we have gained over the last 12 years under the leadership of outstanding directors,” Wadhwa said. “It is truly an honor to have the opportunity to lead this groundbreaking and innovative school to even greater success.”

Wadhwa received her doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego and then curator at the Field Museum in Chicago before moving to ASU.

She is a recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award (2015), the Guggenheim Fellowship (2005) and the Nier Prize of the Meteoritical Society (2000). Asteroid 8356 has also been named “8356 Wadhwa” in recognition of her contributions to meteoritics and planetary science.

“Professor Wadhwa is rare among academics for being both an international-status scientist and a person with deep training in leadership. We are so fortunate to have her step into leadership of this wonderful school, with her skills and her existing dedication to the school and its vision,” said outgoing school director Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who will be staying at ASU to co-chair the Interplanetary Initiative and lead the NASA Psyche Mission, as well continuing as a faculty member in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“I’m excited about our future,” Wadhwa said, “and I am looking forward to working with the entire community in the School of Earth and Space Exploration to enhance the success of our students and on growing our impact locally, nationally and globally.”

About the school

Established in 2006, ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is committed to high-impact scientific discovery, asking important questions with deep consequences and exploring the great unknowns of the Earth, our solar system and the universe beyond. This interdisciplinary school combines the strengths of science, engineering and education to set the stage for a new era of exploration.

Karin Valentine
Media Relations & Marketing Manager
School of Earth and Space Exploration

Center student receives Graduate Excellence Award

Soumya Ray Graduate Excellence AwardWe are pleased to announce that Ph.D. Candidate Soumya Ray has been granted a Graduate Excellence Award by ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Science.

The college recognizes outstanding graduate students who have been nationally acknowledged through funded fellowships, scholarships, and grants. Eligible students receive funds to advance their research and are recognized at an annual ceremony in the spring.

Congratulations, Soumya!

Meteorite Gallery joins 2019 Blue Star Museum program

The Center's Meteorite Gallery joins more than 2,000 museums across America to offer free admission to military personnel and their families this summer, in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, and the Department of Defense.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Blue Star Museums is a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense, and more than 2,000 museums across America to offer free admission to the nation’s active duty military personnel and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The program provides families an opportunity to enjoy the nation's cultural heritage and learn more about their community, especially after a military move. A list of participating museums is available at arts.gov/bluestarmuseums.
 
“Visiting a museum is a great way to get to know a community—whether it’s in your hometown or a stop on a road trip,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “We appreciate the enthusiasm of museums all across the country who open their doors for military and their families to spend time together and have new arts experiences.”
This year’s Blue Star Museums represent not just fine arts museums, but also science museums, history museums, nature centers, and dozens of children’s museums. Museums are welcome to sign up for Blue Star Museums throughout the summer by emailing bluestarmuseums@arts.gov.
 
“As many military families spend the summer months moving from one duty station to another, or reconnecting with a parent who has returned from deployment, Blue Star Museums helps service members and their families create memories,” said Blue Star Families Chief Executive Officer Kathy Roth-Douquet. “Blue Star Families has great appreciation for the generosity of the museums across the country who roll out the red carpet for the families who serve alongside their service members. We are thrilled with the continued growth of the program and the unparalleled opportunities it offers.”

Cumberland Falls

April's Meteorite of the Month is Cumberland Falls, an achondrite (aubrite) meteorite that fell in Tennessee, April 9 of 1919.
 
There were many witnesses to this daytime meteorite fall, given the brilliant fireball and sonic booms.  According to Miller (1919):
"The concussions produced by the bolide were terrific, causing buildings to rock, and  producting (SIC) the impression on some that the region was being visited by an earthquake. The first news of the phenomenon printed in the local papers so recorded it."
 
He also describes how telegraph and telephone operators tracked the bollide's progress, noting it in their event logs, and even alerting their colleagues further along the meteor's path to the imminent arrival of "this mysterious visitor".
 
Aubrites are dominated by enstatite, a pyroxene mineral containing Mg, Si, and O. This mineral is white in Cumberland Falls as opposed to the more normal green to brown, because it contains so little iron.
 
Aubrites are so reduced that they contain minerals not found, or rare, on Earth, including :
  • Caswellsilverite NaCrS2
  • Daubréelite FeCr2S4
  • Oldhamite CaS
  • Perryite (Ni,Fe)5(Si,P)2
  • Schreibersite (Fe,Ni)3P
To date, 17 kg of the Cumberland Falls aubrite have been recovered.
Cumberland Falls
 

Women astronauts? How ridiculous!

In a new article for the ASU Interplanetary Initiative Community in a Box Project, Center Ph.D. Candidate Soumya Ray writes that, "in building off-world communities, diversity and inclusiveness are not optional".

"In writing this article, I was inspired by the question “what would you put in a ‘community-in-a-box’ to kick-start a vibrant, sustainable community in space?” Of course we will need food, oxygen, technology, humans, animals, amongst other things while populating other bodies in space. But we also need to think about the people we enable to go into space as well."

Read the full article, titled "Women astronauts? How ridiculous!", here!

Soumya's research in the Center for Meteorite Studies involves measuring the Fe isotope fractionation in achondrite meteorites, as well as analyzing their Si isotope composition, in the ultra clean Isotope Cosmochemistry and Geochronology Laboratory.  Her Fe isotope work on aubrites, in particular, has provided new insight into the formation of metal nodules in these unique meteorites. 

Soumya was awarded a Summer Exploration Graduate Fellowship in 2018, as well as the highly competitive and prestigious NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship

She recently presented her research at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held in Houston, Texas.
 

Earth & Space Open House – April 5

Join the Center for Meteorite Studies and School of Earth and Space Exploration for Earth & Space Spring Open House!
 
Friday, April 5, from 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM on the ASU Tempe Campus
 
Open House:
  • Visit the Meteorite Gallery on the second floor of ISTB4, and touch real meteorites!
  • From 7:30 PM to 9:30 PM, telescopes next to the James Turrell Skyscape art installation, a short distance from the building. will be pointed at celestial objects of interest.
  • Enjoy hands-on activities and take in a planetarium show in the Marston Theatre! 

For more information and a complete schedule of events for ASU Earth & Space Open House, voted best place to catch a meteor shower by the Phoenix New Times, click here!

DSC_0918Open House is in ISTB4, with telescopes located next to the James Turrell Skyscape art installation, a short distance from the building.

Open House is a rain or shine event!  While the weather may not always look promising for telescopes, there’s a fantastic array of interactive exhibits and displays inside ISTB4, as well as the 3D Astronomy Show!

 

The Center does not offer identification services for potential meteorites at Earth & Space Open House.

Event Schedule

6:30 p.m. — Doors open
6:45 p.m. — 3-D Planetarium show* 
7:30–9:30 p.m. — Telescopes open for public viewing
7:40 p.m. — Keynote speaker
8:50 p.m. — 3-D Planetarium show*
9:30 p.m. — Event ends

*The two 3-D planetarium shows and keynote lecture will be held in the Marston Exploration Theater. Please note that seating is first come, first served. Doors to the Marston Exploration Theater will open five minutes before the start of each show and the theater will be emptied following each presentation.