Earth’s most abundant mineral finally has a name

An ancient meteorite and high-energy X-rays have helped scientists conclude a half century of effort to find, identify and characterize a mineral that makes up 38 percent of the Earth.

And in doing so, a team of scientists led by Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist at the University of Las Vegas, clarified the definition of the Earth’s most abundant mineral – a high-density form of magnesium iron silicate, now called Bridgmanite – and defined estimated constraint ranges for its formation. Their research was performed at the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The mineral was named after 1964 Nobel laureate and pioneer of high-pressure research Percy Bridgman. The naming does more than fix a vexing gap in scientific lingo; it also will aid our understanding of the deep Earth.

To determine the makeup of the inner layers of the Earth, scientists need to test materials under extreme pressure and temperatures. For decades, scientists have believed a dense perovskite structure makes up 38 percent of the Earth’s volume, and that the chemical and physical properties of Bridgmanite have a large influence on how elements and heat flow through the Earth’s mantle. But since the mineral failed to survive the trip to the surface, no one has been able to test and prove its existence – a requirement for getting a name by the International Mineralogical Association.

Shock-compression that occurs in collisions of asteroid bodies in the solar system create the same hostile conditions of the deep Earth – roughly 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800 degrees Farenheit) and pressures of about 240,000 times greater than sea-level air pressure. The shock occurs fast enough to inhibit the Bridgmanite breakdown that takes place when it comes under lower pressure, such as the Earth’s surface. Part of the debris from these collisions falls on Earth as meteorites, with the Bridgmanite “frozen” within a shock-melt vein. Previous tests on meteorites using transmission electron microscopy caused radiation damage to the samples and incomplete results.

So the team decided to try a new tactic: non-destructive micro-focused X-rays for diffraction analysis and novel fast-readout area-detector techniques. Tschauner and his colleagues from Caltech and the GeoSoilEnviroCARS, a University of Chicago-operated X-ray beamline at the APS at Argonne National Laboratory, took advantage of the X-rays’ high energy, which gives them the ability to penetrate the meteorite, and their intense brilliance, which leaves little of the radiation behind to cause damage.

The team examined a section of the highly shocked L-chondrite meteorite Tenham, which crashed in Australia in 1879. The GSECARS beamline was optimal for the study because it is one of the nation’s leading locations for conducting high-pressure research.

Bridgmanite grains are rare in the Tenhma meteorite, and they are smaller than 1 micrometer in diameter. Thus the team had to use a strongly focused beam and conduct highly spatially resolved diffraction mapping until an aggregate of Bridgmanite was identified and characterized by structural and compositional analysis.

This first natural specimen of Bridgmanite came with some surprises: It contains an unexpectedly high amount of ferric iron, beyond that of synthetic samples. Natural Bridgmanite also contains much more sodium than most synthetic samples. Thus the crystal chemistry of natural Bridgmanite provides novel crystal chemical insights. This natural sample of Bridgmanite may serve as a complement to experimental studies of deep mantle rocks in the future.

Prior to this study, knowledge about Bridgmanite’s properties has only been based on synthetic samples because it only remains stable below 660 kilometers (410 miles) depth at pressures of above 230 kbar (23 GPa). When it is brought out of the inner Earth, the lower pressures transform it back into less dense minerals. Some scientists believe that some inclusions on diamonds are the marks left by Bridgmanite that changed as the diamonds were unearthed.

The team’s results were published in the November 28 issue of the journal Science as “Discovery of bridgmanite, the most abundant mineral in Earth, in a shocked meteorite,” by O. Tschauner at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, N.V.; C. Ma; J.R. Beckett; G.R. Rossman at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.; C. Prescher; V.B. Prakapenka at University of Chicago in Chicago, IL.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF.

Asteroid impacts on Earth make structurally bizarre diamonds

Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. -  Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie
Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. – Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie

Scientists have argued for half a century about the existence of a form of diamond called lonsdaleite, which is associated with impacts by meteorites and asteroids. A group of scientists based mostly at Arizona State University now show that what has been called lonsdaleite is in fact a structurally disordered form of ordinary diamond.

The scientists’ report is published in Nature Communications, Nov. 20, by Péter Németh, a former ASU visiting researcher (now with the Research Centre of Natural Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), together with ASU’s Laurence Garvie, Toshihiro Aoki and Peter Buseck, plus Natalia Dubrovinskaia and Leonid Dubrovinsky from the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Buseck and Garvie are with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, while Aoki is with ASU’s LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science.

“So-called lonsdaleite is actually the long-familiar cubic form of diamond, but it’s full of defects,” says Péter Németh. These can occur, he explains, due to shock metamorphism, plastic deformation or unequilibrated crystal growth.

The lonsdaleite story began almost 50 years ago. Scientists reported that a large meteorite, called Canyon Diablo after the crater it formed on impact in northern Arizona, contained a new form of diamond with a hexagonal structure. They described it as an impact-related mineral and called it lonsdaleite, after Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, a famous crystallographer.

Since then, “lonsdaleite” has been widely used by scientists as an indicator of ancient asteroidal impacts on Earth, including those linked to mass extinctions. In addition, it has been thought to have mechanical properties superior to ordinary diamond, giving it high potential industrial significance. All this focused much interest on the mineral, although pure crystals of it, even tiny ones, have never been found or synthesized. That posed a long-standing puzzle.

The ASU scientists approached the question by re-examining Canyon Diablo diamonds and investigating laboratory samples prepared under conditions in which lonsdaleite has been reported.

Using the advanced electron microscopes in ASU’s Center for Solid State Science, the team discovered, both in the Canyon Diablo and the synthetic samples, new types of diamond twins and nanometer-scale structural complexity. These give rise to features attributed to lonsdaleite.

“Most crystals have regular repeating structures, much like the bricks in a well-built wall,” says Peter Buseck. However, interruptions can occur in the regularity, and these are called defects. “Defects are intermixed with the normal diamond structure, just as if the wall had an occasional half-brick or longer brick or row of bricks that’s slightly displaced to one side or another.”

The outcome of the new work is that so-called lonsdaleite is the same as the regular cubic form of diamond, but it has been subjected to shock or pressure that caused defects within the crystal structure.

One consequence of the new work is that many scientific studies based on the presumption that lonsdaleite is a separate type of diamond need to be re-examined. The study implies that both shock and static compression can produce an intensely defective diamond structure.

The new discovery also suggests that the observed structural complexity of the Canyon Diablo diamond results in interesting mechanical properties. It could be a candidate for a product with exceptional hardness.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

New study finds oceans arrived early to Earth

In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line -- the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the 'snow line' (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. -  Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line — the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the ‘snow line’ (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. – Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Earth is known as the Blue Planet because of its oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface and are home to the world’s greatest diversity of life. While water is essential for life on the planet, the answers to two key questions have eluded us: where did Earth’s water come from and when?

While some hypothesize that water came late to Earth, well after the planet had formed, findings from a new study led by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) significantly move back the clock for the first evidence of water on Earth and in the inner solar system.

“The answer to one of the basic questions is that our oceans were always here. We didn’t get them from a late process, as was previously thought,” said Adam Sarafian, the lead author of the paper published Oct. 31, 2014, in the journal Science and a MIT/WHOI Joint Program student in the Geology and Geophysics Department.

One school of thought was that planets originally formed dry, due to the high-energy, high-impact process of planet formation, and that the water came later from sources such as comets or “wet” asteroids, which are largely composed of ices and gases.

“With giant asteroids and meteors colliding, there’s a lot of destruction,” said Horst Marschall, a geologist at WHOI and coauthor of the paper. “Some people have argued that any water molecules that were present as the planets were forming would have evaporated or been blown off into space, and that surface water as it exists on our planet today, must have come much, much later—hundreds of millions of years later.”

The study’s authors turned to another potential source of Earth’s water— carbonaceous chondrites. The most primitive known meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, were formed in the same swirl of dust, grit, ice and gasses that gave rise to the sun some 4.6 billion years ago, well before the planets were formed.

“These primitive meteorites resemble the bulk solar system composition,” said WHOI geologist and coauthor Sune Nielsen. “They have quite a lot of water in them, and have been thought of before as candidates for the origin of Earth’s water.

In order to determine the source of water in planetary bodies, scientists measure the ratio between the two stable isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and hydrogen. Different regions of the solar system are characterized by highly variable ratios of these isotopes. The study’s authors knew the ratio for carbonaceous chondrites and reasoned that if they could compare that to an object that was known to crystallize while Earth was actively accreting then they could gauge when water appeared on Earth.

To test this hypothesis, the research team, which also includes Francis McCubbin from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico and Brian Monteleone of WHOI, utilized meteorite samples provided by NASA from the asteroid 4-Vesta. The asteroid 4-Vesta, which formed in the same region of the solar system as Earth, has a surface of basaltic rock—frozen lava. These basaltic meteorites from 4-Vesta are known as eucrites and carry a unique signature of one of the oldest hydrogen reservoirs in the solar system. Their age—approximately 14 million years after the solar system formed—makes them ideal for determining the source of water in the inner solar system at a time when Earth was in its main building phase. The researchers analyzed five different samples at the Northeast National Ion Microprobe Facility—a state-of-the-art national facility housed at WHOI that utilizes secondary ion mass spectrometers. This is the first time hydrogen isotopes have been measured in eucrite meteorites.

The measurements show that 4-Vesta contains the same hydrogen isotopic composition as carbonaceous chondrites, which is also that of Earth. That, combined with nitrogen isotope data, points to carbonaceous chondrites as the most likely common source of water.

“The study shows that Earth’s water most likely accreted at the same time as the rock. The planet formed as a wet planet with water on the surface,” Marschall said.

While the findings don’t preclude a late addition of water on Earth, it shows that it wasn’t necessary since the right amount and composition of water was present at a very early stage.

“An implication of that is that life on our planet could have started to begin very early,” added Nielsen. “Knowing that water came early to the inner solar system also means that the other inner planets could have been wet early and evolved life before they became the harsh environments they are today.

Scientists successfully use krypton to accurately date ancient Antarctic ice

This is the sampling trench for dust studies on Taylor Glacier. Windblown dust from local sources contaminates the upper ice layers and uncontaminated samples are obtained from a meter below the glacier's surface. -  (Photo courtesy of Hinrich Schaefer)
This is the sampling trench for dust studies on Taylor Glacier. Windblown dust from local sources contaminates the upper ice layers and uncontaminated samples are obtained from a meter below the glacier’s surface. – (Photo courtesy of Hinrich Schaefer)

A team of scientists has successfully identified the age of 120,000-year-old Antarctic ice using radiometric krypton dating – a new technique that may allow them to locate and date ice that is more than a million years old.

The ability to discover ancient ice is critical, the researchers say, because it will allow them to reconstruct the climate much farther back into Earth’s history and potentially understand the mechanisms that have triggered the planet to shift into and out of ice ages.

Results of the discovery are being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The oldest ice found in drilled cores is around 800,000 years old and with this new technique we think we can look in other regions and successfully date polar ice back as far as 1.5 million years,” said Christo Buizert, a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon State University and lead author on the PNAS article. “That is very exciting because a lot of interesting things happened with the Earth’s climate prior to 800,000 years ago that we currently cannot study in the ice core record.”

Krypton dating is much like the more-heralded carbon-14 dating technique that measures the decay of a radioactive isotope – which has constant and well-known decay rates – and compares it to a stable isotope. Unlike carbon-14, however, krypton is a noble gas that does not interact chemically and is much more stable with a half-life of around 230,000 years. Carbon dating doesn’t work well on ice because carbon-14 is produced in the ice itself by cosmic rays and only goes back some 50,000 years.

Krypton is produced by cosmic rays bombarding the Earth and then stored in air bubbles trapped within Antarctic ice. It has a radioactive isotope (krypton-81) that decays very slowly, and a stable isotope (krypton-83) that does not decay. Comparing the proportion of stable-to-radioactive isotopes provides the age of the ice.

Though scientists have been interested in radiokrypton dating for more than four decades, krypton-81 atoms are so limited and difficult to count that it wasn’t until a 2011 breakthrough in detector technology that krypton-81 dating became feasible for this kind of research. The new atom counter, named Atom Trap Trace Analysis, or ATTA, was developed by a team of nuclear physicists led by Zheng-Tian Lu at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

In their experiment at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, the researchers put several 300-kilogram (about 660 pounds) chunks of ice into a container and melted it to release the air from the bubbles, which was then stored in flasks. The krypton was isolated from the air at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and sent to Argonne for krypton-81 counting.

“The atom trap is so sensitive that it can capture and count individual atoms,” said Buizert, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “The only problem is that there isn’t a lot of krypton in the air, and thus there isn’t much in the ice, either. That’s why we need such large samples to melt down.”

The group at Argonne is continually improving the ATTA detector, researchers there say, and they aim to perform analysis on an ice sample as small as 20 kilograms in the near future.

The researchers determined from the isotope ratio that the Taylor Glacier samples were 120,000 years old, and validated the estimate by comparing the results to well-dated ice core measurements of atmospheric methane and oxygen from that same period.

Now the challenge is to locate some of the oldest ice in Antarctica, which may not be as easy as it sounds.

“Most people assume that it’s a question of just drilling deeper for ice cores, but it’s not that simple,” said Edward Brook, an Oregon State University geologist and co-author on the study. “Very old ice probably exists in small isolated patches at the base of the ice sheet that have not yet been identified, but in many places it has probably melted and flowed out into the ocean.”

There also are special regions where old ice is exposed at the edges of an ice field, Brook pointed out.

“The international scientific community is really interested in exploring for old ice in both types of places and this new dating will really help,” Brook said. “There are places where meteorites originating from Mars have been pushed out by glaciers and collect at the margins. Some have been on Earth for a million years or more, so the ice in these spots may be that old as well.”

Buizert said reconstructing the Earth’s climate back to 1.5 million years is important because a shift in the frequency of ice ages took place in what is known as the Middle Pleistocene transition. The Earth is thought to have shifted in and out of ice ages every 100,000 years or so during the past 800,000 years, but there is evidence that such a shift took place every 40,000 years prior to that time.

“Why was there a transition from a 40,000-year cycle to a 100,000-year cycle?” Buizert said. “Some people believe a change in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide may have played a role. That is one reason we are so anxious to find ice that will take us back further in time so we can further extend data on past carbon dioxide levels and test this hypothesis.”

Vitamin B3 might have been made in space, delivered to Earth by meteorites

Karen Smith crushes meteorites with a mortar and pestle in Goddard's Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory to prepare them for analysis. Vitamin B3 was found in all eight meteorites analyzed in the study. -  Karen Smith
Karen Smith crushes meteorites with a mortar and pestle in Goddard’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory to prepare them for analysis. Vitamin B3 was found in all eight meteorites analyzed in the study. – Karen Smith

Ancient Earth might have had an extraterrestrial supply of vitamin B3 delivered by carbon-rich meteorites, according to a new analysis by NASA-funded researchers. The result supports a theory that the origin of life may have been assisted by a supply of key molecules created in space and brought to Earth by comet and meteor impacts.

“It is always difficult to put a value on the connection between meteorites and the origin of life; for example, earlier work has shown that vitamin B3 could have been produced non-biologically on ancient Earth, but it’s possible that an added source of vitamin B3 could have been helpful,” said Karen Smith of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa. “Vitamin B3, also called nicotinic acid or niacin, is a precursor to NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), which is essential to metabolism and likely very ancient in origin.” Smith is lead author of a paper on this research, along with co-authors from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., now available online in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.

This is not the first time vitamin B3 has been found in meteorites. In 2001 a team led by Sandra Pizzarello of Arizona State University, in Tempe discovered it along with related molecules called pyridine carboxylic acids in the Tagish Lake meteorite.

In the new work at Goddard’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory, Smith and her team analyzed samples from eight different carbon-rich meteorites, called “CM-2 type carbonaceous chondrites” and found vitamin B3 at levels ranging from about 30 to 600 parts-per-billion. They also found other pyridine carboxylic acids at similar concentrations and, for the first time, found pyridine dicarboxylic acids.

“We discovered a pattern – less vitamin B3 (and other pyridine carboxylic acids) was found in meteorites that came from asteroids that were more altered by liquid water. One possibility may be that these molecules were destroyed during the prolonged contact with liquid water,” said Smith. “We also performed preliminary laboratory experiments simulating conditions in interstellar space and showed that the synthesis of vitamin B3 and other pyridine carboxylic acids might be possible on ice grains.”

Scientists think the solar system formed when a dense cloud of gas, dust, and ice grains collapsed under its own gravity. Clumps of dust and ice aggregated into comets and asteroids, some of which collided together to form moon-sized objects or planetesimals, and some of those eventually merged to become planets.

Space is filled with radiation from nearby stars as well as from violent events in deep space like exploding stars and black holes devouring matter. This radiation could have powered chemical reactions in the cloud (nebula) that formed the solar system, and some of those reactions may have produced biologically important molecules like vitamin B3.

Asteroids and comets are considered more or less pristine remnants from our solar system’s formation, and many meteorites are prized samples from asteroids that happen to be conveniently delivered to Earth. However, some asteroids are less pristine than others. Asteroids can be altered shortly after they form by chemical reactions in liquid water. As they grow, asteroids incorporate radioactive material present in the solar system nebula. If enough radioactive material accumulates in an asteroid, the heat produced as it decays will be sufficient to melt ice inside the asteroid. Researchers can determine how much an asteroid was altered by water by examining chemical and mineralogical signatures of water alteration in meteorites from those asteroids.

When asteroids collide with meteoroids or other asteroids, pieces break off and some of them eventually make their way to Earth as meteorites. Although meteorites are valued samples from asteroids, they are rarely recovered immediately after they fall to Earth. This leaves them vulnerable to contamination from terrestrial chemistry and life.

The team doubts the vitamin B3 and other molecules found in their meteorites came from terrestrial life for two reasons. First, the vitamin B3 was found along with its structural isomers – related molecules that have the same chemical formula but whose atoms are attached in a different order. These other molecules aren’t used by life. Non-biological chemistry tends to produce a wide variety of molecules — basically everything permitted by the materials and conditions present — but life makes only the molecules it needs. If contamination from terrestrial life was the source of the vitamin B3 in the meteorites, then only the vitamin should have been found, not the other, related molecules.

Second, the amount of vitamin B3 found was related to how much the parent asteroids had been altered by water. This correlation with conditions on the asteroids would be unlikely if the vitamin came from contamination on Earth.

The team plans to conduct additional interstellar chemistry experiments under more realistic conditions to better understand how vitamin B3 can form on ice grains in space. “We used pyridine-carbon dioxide ice in the initial experiment,” said Smith. “We want to add water ice (the dominant component of interstellar ices) and start from simpler organic precursors (building-block molecules) of vitamin B3 to help verify our result.”

Water-rich gem points to vast ‘oceans’ beneath the Earth

Graham Pearson holds a diamond that contains the water-rich mineral 'ringwoodite,' a new discovery that yields new clues about the presence of large amounts of water deep beneath the Earth. -  Richard Siemens/University of Alberta
Graham Pearson holds a diamond that contains the water-rich mineral ‘ringwoodite,’ a new discovery that yields new clues about the presence of large amounts of water deep beneath the Earth. – Richard Siemens/University of Alberta

A University of Alberta diamond scientist has found the first terrestrial sample of a water-rich gem that yields new evidence about the existence of large volumes of water deep beneath the Earth.

An international team of scientists led by Graham Pearson, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic Resources at the U of A, has discovered the first-ever sample of a mineral called ringwoodite. Analysis of the mineral shows it contains a significant amount of water-1.5 per cent of its weight-a finding that confirms scientific theories about vast volumes of water trapped 410 to 660 kilometres beneath the Earth, between the upper and lower mantle.

“This sample really provides extremely strong confirmation that there are local wet spots deep in the Earth in this area,” said Pearson, a professor in the Faculty of Science, whose findings were published March 13 in Nature. “That particular zone in the Earth, the transition zone, might have as much water as all the world’s oceans put together.”

Ringwoodite is a form of the mineral peridot, believed to exist in large quantities under high pressures in the transition zone. Ringwoodite has been found in meteorites but, until now, no terrestrial sample has ever been unearthed because scientists haven’t been able to conduct fieldwork at extreme depths.

Pearson’s sample was found in 2008 in the Juina area of Mato Grosso, Brazil, where artisan miners unearthed the host diamond from shallow river gravels. The diamond had been brought to the Earth’s surface by a volcanic rock known as kimberlite-the most deeply derived of all volcanic rocks.

The discovery that almost wasn’t


Pearson said the discovery was almost accidental in that his team had been looking for another mineral when they purchased a three-millimetre-wide, dirty-looking, commercially worthless brown diamond. The ringwoodite itself is invisible to the naked eye, buried beneath the surface, so it was fortunate that it was found by Pearson’s graduate student, John McNeill, in 2009.

“It’s so small, this inclusion, it’s extremely difficult to find, never mind work on,” Pearson said, “so it was a bit of a piece of luck, this discovery, as are many scientific discoveries.”

The sample underwent years of analysis using Raman and infrared spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction before it was officially confirmed as ringwoodite. The critical water measurements were performed at Pearson’s Arctic Resources Geochemistry Laboratory at the U of A. The laboratory forms part of the world-renowned Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis, also home to the world’s largest academic diamond research group.

The study is a great example of a modern international collaboration with some of the top leaders from various fields, including the Geoscience Institute at Goethe University, University of Padova, Durham University, University of Vienna, Trigon GeoServices and Ghent University.

For Pearson, one of the world’s leading authorities in the study of deep Earth diamond host rocks, the discovery ranks among the most significant of his career, confirming about 50 years of theoretical and experimental work by geophysicists, seismologists and other scientists trying to understand the makeup of the Earth’s interior.

Scientists have been deeply divided about the composition of the transition zone and whether it is full of water or desert-dry. Knowing water exists beneath the crust has implications for the study of volcanism and plate tectonics, affecting how rock melts, cools and shifts below the crust.

“One of the reasons the Earth is such a dynamic planet is the presence of some water in its interior,” Pearson said. “Water changes everything about the way a planet works.”

Newly discovered flux in the Earth may solve missing-mantle mystery

It’s widely thought that the Earth arose from violent origins: Some 4.5 billion years ago, a maelstrom of gas and dust circled in a massive disc around the sun, gathering in rocky clumps to form asteroids. These asteroids, gaining momentum, whirled around a fledgling solar system, repeatedly smashing into each other to create larger bodies of rubble – the largest of which eventually cooled to form the planets.

Countless theories, simulations and geologic observations support such a scenario. But there remains one lingering mystery: If the Earth arose from the collision of asteroids, its composition should resemble that of meteoroids, the small particles that break off from asteroids.

But to date, scientists have found that, quite literally, something doesn’t add up: Namely, the Earth’s mantle – the layer between the planet’s crust and core – is missing an amount of lead found in meteorites whose composition has been analyzed following impact with the Earth.

Much of the Earth is composed of rocks with a high ratio of uranium to lead (uranium naturally decays to lead over time). However, according to standard theories of planetary evolution, the Earth should harbor a reservoir of mantle somewhere in its interior that has a low ratio of uranium to lead, to match the composition of meteorites. But such a reservoir has yet to be discovered – a detail that leaves Earth’s origins hazy.

Now researchers in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences have identified a “hidden flux” of material in the Earth’s mantle that would make the planet’s overall composition much more similar to that of meteorites. This reservoir likely takes the form of extremely dense, lead-laden rocks that crystallize beneath island arcs, strings of volcanoes that rise up at the boundary of tectonic plates.

As two massive plates push against each other, one plate subducts, or slides, under the other, pushing material from the crust down into the mantle. At the same time, molten material from the mantle rises up to the crust, and is ejected via volcanoes onto the Earth’s surface.

According to the MIT researchers’ observations and calculations, however, up to 70 percent of this rising magma crystallizes into dense rock – dropping, leadlike, back into the mantle, where it remains relatively undisturbed. The lead-heavy flux, they say, puts the composition of the Earth’s mantle on a par with that of meteorites.

“Now that we know the composition of this flux, we can calculate that there’s tons of this stuff dropping down from the base of the crust into the mantle, so it is likely an important reservoir,” says Oliver Jagoutz, an assistant professor of geology at MIT. “This has a lot of implications for understanding how the Earth evolved through history.”

Jagoutz and his colleague Max Schmidt, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, have detailed their results in a paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

A mantle exposed


Measuring the composition of material that has dropped into the mantle is a nearly impossible task. Jagoutz estimates that such dense rocks would form at a depth of 40 to 50 kilometers below the surface, beyond the reach of conventional sampling techniques.

There is, however, one place on earth where such a depth of the crust and mantle is exposed: a region of northern Pakistan called the Kohistan arc. Forty million years ago, this island arc was crushed between India and Asia as the two plates collided.

“When India came in, it slammed into the arc, and the arc extended and rotated itself,” Jagoutz says. “Because of that, we now have a cross-section of the mantle-to-crust transition. This is the only place on Earth where this exists.”

On various trips from 2000 to 2007, Jagoutz trekked through the Kohistan arc region, collecting rocks from various parts of the arc’s crust and mantle. Bringing them back to the lab, he analyzed the rocks’ density and composition, discovering that some were “density-unstable” – much denser than the mantle. These denser rocks could potentially sink into the mantle, creating a hidden reservoir.

Adding up to an asteroid origin


The researchers measured the rocks’ composition, and found that the denser rocks contained much more lead than uranium – exactly the ratio predicted for the missing reservoir of material. Jagoutz then performed a mass balance (a simple conservation-of-mass calculation) to determine how much dense rock drops into the mantle, based on the composition of the region’s crust, rocks and mantle: Essentially, the mass of the Kohistan arc, minus whatever material drops into the mantle, should equal the material that comes out of the mantle.

Jagoutz and Schmidt solved the equation for 10 common elements. From their calculations, they found that 70 percent of the magma that rises from the mantle must ultimately drop back down, relatively heavy with lead. Applying this statistic to other island arcs in the world – such as the Andean volcanic belt and the Cascade Range – they found that the amount of material dropped into the mantle globally equals the composition and quantity of the so-called missing reservoir – a finding that suggests that Earth did indeed form from the collision of meteorites.

“If we are right, one of the questions we have is: Why is the Earth capable of hiding something from us? Why is there never a volcano that brings up these rocks?” Jagoutz adds. “You’d think it’d come back up, but it doesn’t. It’s actually interesting.

USF researchers: Life-producing phosphorus carried to Earth by meteorites

This is Matthew Pasek, University of South Florida. -  USF/Aimee Blodgett
This is Matthew Pasek, University of South Florida. – USF/Aimee Blodgett

Scientists may not know for certain whether life exists in outer space, but new research from a team of scientists led by a University of South Florida astrobiologist now shows that one key element that produced life on Earth was carried here on meteorites.

In an article published in the new edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, USF Assistant Professor of Geology Matthew Pasek and researchers from the University of Washington and the Edinburg Centre for Carbon Innovation, revealed new findings that explain how the reactive phosphorus that was an essential component for creating the earliest life forms came to Earth.

The scientists found that during the Hadean and Archean eons – the first of the four principal eons of the Earth’s earliest history – the heavy bombardment of meteorites provided reactive phosphorus that when released in water could be incorporated into prebiotic molecules. The scientists documented the phosphorus in early Archean limestone, showing it was abundant some 3.5 billion years ago.

The scientists concluded that the meteorites delivered phosphorus in minerals that are not seen on the surface of the earth, and these minerals corroded in water to release phosphorus in a form seen only on the early earth.

The discovery answers one of the key questions for scientists trying to unlock the processes that gave rise to early life forms: Why don’t we see new life forms today?

“Meteorite phosphorus may have been a fuel that provided the energy and phosphorus necessary for the onset of life,” said Pasek, who studies the chemical composition of space and how it might have contributed to the origins of life. “If this meteoritic phosphorus is added to simple organic compounds, it can generate phosphorus biomolecules identical to those seen in life today.”

Pasek said the research provides a plausible answer: The conditions under which life arose on the earth billions of years ago are no longer present today.

“The present research shows that this is indeed the case: Phosphorus chemistry on the early earth was substantially different billions of years ago than it is today,” he added.

The research team reached their conclusion after examining earth core samples from Australia, Zimbabwe, West Virginia, Wyoming and in Avon Park, Florida

Previous research had showed that before the emergence of modern DNA-RNA-protein life that is known today, the earliest biological forms evolved from RNA alone. What has stumped scientists, however, was understanding how those early RNA -based life forms synthesized environmental phosphorus, which in its current form is relatively insoluble and unreactive.

Meteorites would have provided reactive phosphorus in the form of the iron-nickel phosphide mineral schreibersite, which in water released soluble and reactive phosphite. Phosphite is the salt scientists believe could have been incorporated into prebiotic molecules.

Of all of the samples analyzed, only the oldest, the Coonterunah carbonate samples from the early Archean of Australia, showed the presence of phosphite, Other natural sources of phosphite include lightning strikes, geothermal fluids and possibly microbial activity under extremely anaerobic condition, but no other terrestrial sources of phosphite have been identified and none could have produced the quantities of phosphite needed to be dissolved in early Earth oceans that gave rise to life, the researchers concluded.

The scientists said meteorite phosphite would have been abundant enough to adjust the chemistry of the oceans, with its chemical signature later becoming trapped in marine carbonate where it was preserved.

It is still possible, the researchers noted, that other natural sources of phosphite could be identified, such as in hydrothermal systems. While that might lead to reducing the total meteoric mass necessary to provide enough phosphite, the researchers said more work would need to be done to determine the exact contribution of separate sources to what they are certain was an essential ingredient to early life.

Meteorite triggered scientific gold rush

Qing-Zhu Yin, professor of geology at UC Davis, shows a 5.4-gram meteorite fragment, which was part of the Sutter's Mill meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22, 2012. Gregory Jorgensen, a UC Davis alum, found the meteorite on his driveway and donated it to UC Davis. -  Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis
Qing-Zhu Yin, professor of geology at UC Davis, shows a 5.4-gram meteorite fragment, which was part of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22, 2012. Gregory Jorgensen, a UC Davis alum, found the meteorite on his driveway and donated it to UC Davis. – Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

A meteorite that exploded as a fireball over California’s Sierra foothills this past spring was among the fastest, rarest meteorites known to have hit the Earth, and it traveled a highly eccentric orbital route to get here.

An international team of scientists presents these and other findings in a study published Friday, Dec. 21, in the journal Science. The 70-member team included nine researchers from UC Davis, along with scientists from the SETI Institute, NASA and other institutions.

The researchers found that the meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22 was the rarest type known to have hit the Earth – a carbonaceous chondrite. It is composed of cosmic dust and presolar materials that helped form the planets of the solar system.

The scientists learned that the meteorite formed about 4.5 billion years ago. It was knocked off its parent body, which may have been an asteroid or a Jupiter-family comet, roughly 50,000 years ago. That began its journey to Sutter’s Mill, the gold discovery site that sparked the California Gold Rush.

As it flew toward Earth, it traveled an eccentric course through the solar system, flying from an orbit close to Jupiter toward the sun, passing by Mercury and Venus, and then flying out to hit Earth.

The high-speed, minivan-sized meteorite entered the atmosphere at about 64,000 miles per hour. The study said it was the fastest, “most energetic” reported meteorite that’s fallen since 2008, when an asteroid fell over Sudan.

“If this were a much bigger object, it could have been a disaster,” said co-author and UC Davis geology professor Qing-zhu Yin. “This is a happy story in this case. “

Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the meteorite is estimated to have weighed roughly 100,000 pounds. Most of that mass burned away when the meteorite exploded. Scientists and private collectors have recovered about 2 pounds remaining.

UC Davis is 60 miles west of the El Dorado county towns of Coloma and Lotus, where pieces of the meteorite were found on residents’ driveways and in local forests and parks.

When the meteorite fell, Yin, whose lab contains some of the country’s most specialized equipment to measure the age and composition of meteorites, searched for and collected pieces of the fallen meteorite with students and volunteers. He also lead a 35-member subgroup of international researchers to study and share information about the meteorite’s mineralogy, internal textures, chemical and isotopic compositions and magnetic properties.

Meteorites like Sutter’s Mill are thought to have delivered oceans of water to the Earth early in its history. Using neutron-computed tomography, UC Davis researchers helped identify where hydrogen, and therefore water-rich fragments, resides in the meteorite without breaking it open.

For the first time, the Doppler weather radar network helped track the falling carbonaceous chondrite meteorite pieces, aiding scientists in the quick recovery of them, the study reports. Yin expects that the weather radar data in the public domain could greatly enhance and benefit future meteorite recoveries on land.

“For me, the fun of this scientific gold rush is really just beginning,” said Yin. “This first report based on the initial findings provides a platform to propel us into more detailed research. Scientists are still finding new and exciting things in Murchison, a similar type of meteorite to Sutter’s Mill, which fell in Victoria, Australia, in 1969, the same year Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned the first lunar samples to the Earth. We will learn a lot more with Sutter’s Mill.”

Scientists find new primitive mineral in meteorite

Panguite is embedded in a piece of the Allende meteorite. -  Chi Ma / Caltech
Panguite is embedded in a piece of the Allende meteorite. – Chi Ma / Caltech

In 1969, an exploding fireball tore through the sky over Mexico, scattering thousands of pieces of meteorite across the state of Chihuahua. More than 40 years later, the Allende meteorite is still serving the scientific community as a rich source of information about the early stages of our solar system’s evolution. Recently, scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) discovered a new mineral embedded in the space rock-one they believe to be among the oldest minerals formed in the solar system.

Dubbed panguite, the new titanium oxide is named after Pan Gu, the giant from ancient Chinese mythology who established the world by separating yin from yang to create the earth and the sky. The mineral and the mineral name have been approved by the International Mineralogical Association’s Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification. A paper outlining the discovery and the properties of this new mineral will be published in the July issue of the journal American Mineralogist, and is available online now.

“Panguite is an especially exciting discovery since it is not only a new mineral, but also a material previously unknown to science,” says Chi Ma, a senior scientist and director of the Geological and Planetary Sciences division’s Analytical Facility at Caltech and corresponding author on the paper.

The Allende meteorite is the largest carbonaceous chondrite-a diverse class of primitive meteorites-ever found on our planet and is considered by many the best-studied meteorite in history. As a result of an ongoing nanomineralogy investigation of primitive meteorites-which Ma has been leading since 2007-nine new minerals, including panguite, have been found in the Allende meteorite. Some of those new finds include the minerals allendeite, hexamolybdenum, tistarite, and kangite. Nanomineralogy looks at tiny particles of minerals and the minuscule features within those minerals.

“The intensive studies of objects in this meteorite have had a tremendous influence on current thinking about processes, timing, and chemistry in the primitive solar nebula and small planetary bodies,” says coauthor George Rossman, the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Mineralogy at Caltech.

Panguite was observed first under a scanning electron microscope in an ultra-refractory inclusion embedded in the meteorite. Refractory inclusions are among the first solid objects formed in our solar system, dating back to before the formation of Earth and the other planets. “Refractory” refers to the fact that these inclusions contain minerals that are stable at high temperatures and in extreme environments, which attests to their likely formation as primitive, high-temperature liquids produced by the solar nebula.

According to Ma, studies of panguite and other newly discovered refractory minerals are continuing in an effort to learn more about the conditions under which they formed and subsequently evolved. “Such investigations are essential to understand the origins of our solar system,” he says.