About 466 million years ago, there was a giant collision in outer space. Something hit an asteroid and broke it apart, sending chunks of rock falling to Earth as meteorites. But what kinds of meteorites were making their way to Earth before that collision?
In a study published Jan. 23 in Nature Astronomy, scientists tackled that question by creating the first reconstruction of the distribution of meteorite types before the collision. They discovered that most of the meteorites falling to Earth today are rare, while many meteorites that are rare today were common before the collision.
“We found that the meteorite flux—the variety of meteorites falling to Earth—was very, very different from what we see today,” said Philipp Heck, associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, the paper’s lead author. “Looking at the kinds of meteorites that have fallen to Earth in the last hundred million years doesn’t give you a full picture. It would be like looking outside on a snowy day and concluding that every day is snowy, even though it’s not snowy in the summer.”
Meteorites are pieces of rock that have fallen to Earth from outer space. They’re formed from the debris of collisions between bodies like asteroids, moons and even planets. There are many different types of meteorites, which reflect the different compositions of their parent bodies. By studying the different meteorites that have made their way to Earth, scientists can develop a better understanding of how the basic building blocks of the solar system formed and evolved.
“Before this study, we knew almost nothing about the meteorite flux to Earth in geological deep time,” said co-author Birger Schmitz, professor of nuclear physics at Lund University. “The conventional view is that the solar system has been very stable over the past 500 million years. So it is quite surprising that the meteorite flux at 467 million years ago was so different from (that of) the present.”
To learn what the meteorite flux was like before the big collision event, Heck and his colleagues analyzed meteorites that fell more than 466 million years ago. Such finds are rare, but the team was able to look at micrometeorites—tiny specks of space-rock less than 2 millimeters in diameter that fell to Earth. They are less rare. Heck’s Swedish and Russian colleagues retrieved samples of rock from an ancient seafloor exposed in a Russian river valley that contained micrometeorites. They then dissolved almost 600 pounds of the rocks in acid so that only microscopic chromite crystals remained.
Not having changed during hundreds of millions of years, the crystals revealed the nature of meteorites over time. Analysis of their chemical makeup showed that the meteorites and micrometeorites that fell earlier than 466 million years ago are different from the ones that have fallen since. A full 34 percent of the pre-collision meteorites belong to a meteorite type called primitive achondrites; today, only 0.45 percent of the meteorites that land on Earth are this type.
Other micrometeorites sampled turned out to be relics from Vesta—the brightest asteroid visible from Earth, which underwent its own collision event over a billion years ago.
Meteorite delivery from the asteroid belt to the Earth is a little like observing landslides started at different times on a mountainside, said co-author William Bottke, senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. “Today, the rocks reaching the bottom of the mountain might be dominated by a few recent landslides. Going back in time, however, older landslides should be more important. The same is true for asteroid breakup events; some younger ones dominate the current meteorite flux, while in the past older ones dominated.”
“Knowing more about the different kinds of meteorites that have fallen over time gives us a better understanding of how the asteroid belt evolved and how different collisions happened,” said Heck, an associate curator of meteoritics and polar studies at the Field Museum of Natural History. “Ultimately, we want to study more windows in time, not just the area before and after this collision. That will deepen our knowledge of how different bodies in our solar system formed and interact with each other.”
—Adapted from a story first published by the Field Museum of Natural History.
Citation: “Rare meteorites common in the Ordovician period,” Nature Astronomy, Jan. 23, 2017. DOI: 10.1038/s41550-016-0035.
Funding: European Research Council and Tawani Foundation