Looking back at history-making chemistry that's out of this world
October 6, 2021
It was 60 years ago, in 1961, and the space race was on. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, followed weeks later by American astronaut Alan Shepard. President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Arizona State University’s opportunity to become part of the nation’s space program began when it purchased the largest personal meteorite collection at the time from Harvey Nininger. Nininger’s meteorite collection, consisting of samples from nearly 600 localities, was housed and studied at ASU’s newly formed Center for Meteorite Studies, one of the university’s first research institutes.
To direct the center, ASU courted a recent PhD graduate from the California Institute of Technology, Carleton Moore. Moore, at the time, was teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. On behalf of ASU, Herbert G. Fales flew to Connecticut to recruit Moore.
Moore recalled, “I was interested in the position, but I wanted to come to Arizona to see the university before accepting. At the time, it was unheard of for prospective faculty to want to come and visit the school, so I don’t think they really knew what to do with me. They gave me a nice tour, and then George Bateman, chair of the division of physical sciences, took me to dinner at the local bowling alley.”
The Center for Meteorite Studies was originally located in the Department of Chemistry (today the School of Molecular Sciences). One of Moore’s first tasks as director was to organize a symposium on meteorite research to celebrate the inauguration of ASU’s new president, G. Homer Durham.
“Durham was a wonderful guy,” Moore said. “He saw that ASU had to grow, so he was very supportive of our research.”
Research at the Center for Meteorite Studies grew throughout the 1960s, as did Moore’s skill and reputation. Prior to the first moon landing in 1969, Moore was accepted by NASA to chemically analyze lunar samples brought back to Earth by the astronauts. A little over 50 years ago, on the evening of Oct. 7, 1969, history was made at ASU in the C-wing of the physical sciences building when Moore, together with colleague Charles Lewis and graduate student Robert Kelly, obtained the first measurements of carbon in a lunar sample.
October's Meteorite of the Month is Peekskill, an ordinary (H6) chondrite that fell October 9, 1992, in New York.
How would you feel if a meteorite wrecked your car?
According to the Meteoritical Bulletin (MB 75), after a fireball and a loud noise the evening of October 9, 1992, a meteorite weighing over 12 kg (~26.5 lb) fell on a car parked in the driveway of a house in Peekskill, New York. The meteorite was found nearly intact under the car – covered in red paint transferred during the impact.
This car was hit by the Peekskill meteorite in 1992!
This full-scale cast of the Peekskill meteorite is roughly the size of an American football. Note the red paint, transferred from the car on impact.
Slice of Peekskill meteorite showing fusion crusted edges (what appears to be a blue speck on the surface of the slice is actually a reflection on the metal display prong, and not part of the meteorite).
Chondrites are the most commonly recovered meteorites, accounting for over 85% of all meteorite falls and finds. They are named for the spherical masses they contain, called chondrules. The terms chondrule and chondrite are derived from the ancient Greek term chondros, meaning grain.
"I still remember being blown away by the first photo I saw online – It was astonishing. What was this sedimentary material? I had never seen anything like that before in a meteorite. It looked like a well- sorted sediment.”
Isheyevo was the first meteorite to show prominent macroscopic sedimentary laminations and, so far, remains the only meteorite that provides evidence of gentle layer-by-layer accretion in the early Solar System. This extends the terrestrial sedimentary source-to-sink paradigm to a near vacuum environment where neither fluvial nor aeolian processes operate.
“Isheyevo is the Solar System’s oldest sedimentary rock, having formed just a few million years after the formation of the oldest objects in our Solar System, the CAIs, and is way older than the oldest Earth rock."
Morris' astrophysical modeling was key to bringing the formational history to light and to understanding the physics under which this rock could have formed, and Knauth's insights into terrestrial sedimentary formation scenarios added crucial context to how this rock had formed billions of years ago on an extraterrestrial body.
"I am often asked “what is your favorite meteorite?” Being the curator, I have thousands to choose from, but I always point to Isheyevo.”
The Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University is pleased to announce the application opportunity for the 2021-22 Nininger Meteorite Award for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing research in meteoritical sciences!
The Nininger Meteorite Award recognizes outstanding student achievement in the meteoritical sciences as embodied by an original research paper. Papers must cover original research conducted by the student and must have been written, submitted, or published between January 1, 2021 and December 31, 2022.
The 2021-22 Nininger Meteorite Award application deadline is February 1, 2023. Applicants must be the first, but not sole, author of the paper and must have been studying at an educational institution in the United States at the time the paper was written, submitted, or published.
The Nininger Meteorite Award recipient receives $2,000 and an engraved plaque commemorating the honor.
Benld is an ordinary (H6) chondrite that fell the morning of September 29th, 1938, in Macoupin County, Illinois.
The Benld meteorite was only the second meteorite recovered in Illinois (there are now 10 recognized meteorites from the state), and its fall was quite spectacular.
The meteorite was described by B. H. Wilson in Popular Astronomy (1938) as
"crashing out of the battlements of heaven, aimed apparently with the precision of a crack artilleryman, not only striking but penetrating the roof of a garage, as well as the car inside, thereby creating a situation, which, in several respects, is believed to be unique in the annals of meteoric phenomena".
The Benld meteorite was also featured in the Joliet Herald-News (October 1, 1938) under the headline "Should Have Had Meteorite Insurance".
Witnesses to the meteorite's fall did not observe a fireball, and some mistook the sound of the stone's entry for that of a plane's engine.
The Center for Meteorite Studies congratulates Dr. Soumya Ray, who succesfully defended her doctoral dissertation August 24th!
A combined investigation of iron and silicon isotopes in meteorites: Implications for planetary accretion and differentiation
Meteorites provide us with an opportunity to reconstruct the history of our Solar System. Differentiated meteorites, also called achondrites, are the result of melting and differentiation processes on their parent body. Stable isotopic compositions of differentiated meteorites and their components have added to our understanding of the physical parameters such as temperature, pressure, and redox conditions relevant to differentiation processes on planetesimals and planets in the early Solar System. In particular, Fe and Si isotopes have proven to be useful in advancing our understanding of the physical and chemical processes during planetary accretion and subsequent evolution.
In this work, Dr. Ray developed a new method to simultaneously purify Fe and Si from a single aliquot of sample while ensuring consistently high yields and accurate and precise isotopic measurements. She then measured the Fe isotope compositions and Si contents of metals from aubrite meteorites to infer the structure and thermal evolution of their asteroidal parent body. Thereafter, she determined the combined Si and Fe isotope compositions of aubrite metals and the Horse Creek iron meteorite, and compared the magnitude of Si and Fe isotope fractionation factors between metal and silicates for both enstatite chondrites and aubrites to estimate the effect of high-temperature core formation that occurred on the aubrite parent body. She additionally assessed whether correlated Si and Fe isotope systematics can be used to trace core formation and partial melting processes for the aubrite parent body, angrite parent body, Mars, Vesta, Moon, and Earth.
Finally, she measured the combined Fe and Si isotope composition of a variety of ungrouped achondrites and brachinites that record different degrees of differentiation under different redox conditions to evaluate the role of differentiation and oxygen fugacity in controlling their Fe and Si isotope compositions. Taken together, this comprehensive dataset reveals the thermal evolution of the aubrite parent body, provides insights into the factors controlling the Fe and Si isotope compositons of various planetary materials, and helps constrain the bulk starting composition of planets and planetesimals.
To celebrate of 60 years of the Center for Meteorite Studies, we’re posting stories of historical Center events, new research initiatives, exciting outreach programs, conservation and growth of the Center’s invaluable meteorite collection. We invite you to follow us on social media, and share your memories and photos of the Center for Meteorite Studies using #CMS60.
During the early morning hours of June 2, 2016, a bright fireball was widely observed throughout the southwestern US, generating radar reflections consistent with falling meteorite material. Analysis of Doppler radar data showed that stones had likely landed on the southwestern corner of the White Mountain Apache tribal (WMAT) lands.
With the help of Jacob Moore (Assistant Vice-president of Tribal Relations at ASU), permission was granted by Ronnie Lupe, the WMAT Tribal Chairman, to enter the tribal lands and search for and collect meteorites. Center Meteorite Curator Laurence Garvie began searching the rugged, mountainous terrain of the WMAT for meteorites, along with (former ASU PhD Candidates, now alumni) Daniel Dunlap, and Prajkta Mane. After over 130 hours of meteorite hunting in remote Arizona backcountry, their efforts were rewarded and they ultimately recovered 15 stones.
Upon his return to ASU, Garvie immediately began the work of classifying this new meteorite. Given the name Dishchii’bikoh Ts’iłsǫǫsé Tsee by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, it was determined to be an LL7 chondrite, the fourth witnessed meteorite to fall in Arizona.