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Scientists have identified two minerals never before seen on Earth in a meteorite weighing 15.2 tons (33,510 pounds).
The minerals came from a 70-gram (almost 2.5-ounce) slice of the meteorite, which was discovered in Somalia in 2020 and is the ninth-largest meteorite ever found, according to a University of Alberta press release.
Chris Herd, curator of the university’s meteorite collection, was given samples of the space rock so he could classify it. As he examined it, he noticed something unusual – some parts of the sample were unidentifiable with a microscope. He then sought advice from Andrew Locock, head of the university’s Electron Microprobe Laboratory, as Locock is experienced in characterizing new minerals.
“Right on the first day, when he did some analysis, he said, ‘You’ve got at least two new minerals in there,'” Herd, a professor in the university’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said in a statement. “That was phenomenal. Most of the time it takes a lot more work to say there is a new mineral.”
A mineral’s name – elaliite – derives from the space object itself, dubbed the “El Ali” meteorite because it was found near the town of El Ali in central Somalia.
Herd named the second elkinstantonite after Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Vice President of Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative. Elkins-Tanton is also Regent’s Professor at that university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the principal investigator on NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission — a journey to a metal-rich asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, according to the space agency.
“Lindy has done a lot of work on how the cores of planets form, how these iron-nickel cores form, and the closest analogue that we have are iron meteorites,” Herd said. “It made sense to name a mineral after her and recognize her contributions to science.”
The approval of the two new minerals by the International Mineralogical Association in November this year “shows that the work is robust,” said Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist and research professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Whenever you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rock, were different than what was previously found,” Herd said. “That’s the exciting thing: In this particular meteorite, you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”
Locock’s quick identification was possible because similar minerals had previously been produced synthetically, and he was able to match the compositions of the newly discovered minerals to their human-made counterparts, according to the University of Alberta publication.
“Materials scientists do this all the time,” said Alan Rubin, a meteorite researcher and former associate professor and geochemist in the Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. “You can make new compounds — one just to see what’s physically possible, just out of research interest, and others… will say, ‘We’re looking for a compound that has certain properties for a practical or commercial application, like conductivity or high elongation or high melting temperature.
“It is just a coincidence that a researcher finds a mineral in a meteorite or a terrestrial rock that was not previously known, and then very often the same compound will have been made before by materials scientists.”
Both new minerals are iron phosphates, Tschauner said. A phosphate is a salt or ester of a phosphoric acid.
“Phosphates in iron meteorites are secondary products: they form from the oxidation of phosphides…which are rare main components of iron meteorites,” he said via email. “So the two new phosphates tell us something about oxidation processes that took place in the meteorite material. It remains to be seen whether the post-fall oxidation occurred in space or on Earth, but as far as I know, many of these meteorite phosphates formed in space. In both cases, water is likely the reactant that caused the oxidation.”
Results were presented at the University of Alberta’s Space Exploration Symposium in November. The revelations “expand our perspective on the natural materials that can be found and formed in the solar system,” Rubin said.
The El Ali meteorite from which the minerals came appears to have been sent to China in search of a buyer, Herd said.
In the meantime, researchers are still analyzing the minerals – and possibly a third – to find out under what conditions the space rock formed in the meteorite. And newly discovered minerals could have exciting implications for the future, he added.
“Whenever there is a new material that is known, materials scientists also get interested because of its potential use in a variety of things in society,” Herd said.