(CNN) — Scientists have identified two minerals never before seen on Earth in a meteorite weighing 15.2 metric tons.
The minerals were found in a 70-gram piece of the meteorite, which was discovered in Somalia in 2020 and is the ninth largest meteorite ever found, according to a Press release from the University of Alberta.
Chris Herd, curator of the university’s meteorite collection, received samples of the space rock so he could classify it. As he examined it, something unusual caught his eye: some parts of the sample were not identifiable under a microscope.
So, he decided to seek the advice of Andrew Locock, head of the university’s Electron Microprobe Laboratory, who has experience describing new minerals.
“The first day 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 atmospheric and Earth sciences, said in a statement.
“That was phenomenal. Most of the time it takes a lot more work to say that there is a new mineral,” she added.
The name of a mineral, ‘elaliite’, comes from the space object itself, the “El Ali” meteorite because it was found near the city of El Ali in central Somalia.
Herd named the second mineral ‘elkinstonite’ after Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University. Elkins-Tanton is also a Regent Professor in that university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Principal Investigator of the upcoming psyche mission from NASA, a trip to a metal-rich asteroid that orbits 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 and nickel cores form, and the closest analogue we have is iron meteorites,” Herd said. “It made sense to name a mineral after her and recognize her contributions to science.”
The International Mineralogical Association’s approval of the two new minerals in November of this year “indicates that the work is solid,” said Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist and research professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Any time you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rock, was different than what had been found before,” Herd said. “That’s what makes this exciting: In this particular meteorite there are two officially described minerals that are new to science.”
The role of lab-created minerals in discovery
Locock’s quick identification was possible because similar minerals had been synthetically created before, and he was able to match the composition of the newly discovered minerals to their human-made counterparts, according to the University of Alberta statement.
“Material scientists do this all the time,” said Alan Rubin, a meteorite researcher and a former associate professor and research geochemist in the department of Earth, planetary, and space sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They may create new compounds, some just to see what’s physically possible for research purposes, and others…will say, ‘We’re looking for a compound that has certain properties for some practical or commercial application, like conductivity, high voltage, or high temperature. of fusion.
“It’s just serendipitous that a researcher finds a mineral in a meteorite or terrestrial rock that hasn’t been known before, and then very often that same compound has already been created previously 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 are formed through the oxidation of phosphides… which are rare primary components of iron meteorites,” he explained by email. “Therefore, the two new phosphates tell us about the oxidation processes that occurred in the meteorite material. Whether the oxidation occurred in space or on Earth after the fall remains to be seen, but to my knowledge many of these meteorite phosphates formed in space. In either case, water is likely the reactant that caused the oxidation.”
The findings were presented in November at the University of Alberta Symposium on Space Exploration. The revelations “broaden our perspective on the natural materials that can be found and can be formed in the solar system,” Rubin said.
The El Ali meteorite from which the minerals came appears to have been shipped to China in search of a buyer, Herd said.
Meanwhile, researchers are still analyzing the minerals, and potentially a third party, to find out what the conditions were in the meteorite when the space rock formed. And the newly discovered minerals could have exciting implications for the future, she added.
“Any time a new material is known, materials scientists are also interested because of the potential uses in a wide range of things in society,” Herd said.