Two new minerals which have never been seen in nature have been found in a 15-tonne meteorite in Somalia – which was the ninth-largest ever found.
Professor Chris Herd, curator of the University of Alberta’s Meteorite Collection, analysed a thin slice of the meteorite and saw something that caught his attention.
He brought in the expertise of Andrew Locock, head of the university’s Electron Microprobe Laboratory.
“The very first day he did some analyses, he said, ‘You’ve got at least two new minerals in there,’” says Herd.
“That was phenomenal. Most of the time it takes a lot more work than that to say there’s a new mineral.”
The two minerals found came from a single 70g slice that was sent to the university for classification, and there already appears to be a potential third mineral under consideration.
If researchers obtain more samples from the massive meteorite, there’s a chance that even more might be found, Herd notes.
Professor Chris Herd, curator of the University of Alberta’s Meteorite Collection says, “Whenever you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rock, was different than what’s been found before.”
“That’s what makes this exciting: In this particular meteorite you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”
The two newly discovered minerals have been named elaliite and elkinstantonite. The first receives its name from the meteorite itself, dubbed the “El Ali” meteorite because it was found in near the town of El Ali, in the Hiiraan region of Somalia.
Herd named the second mineral after Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and principal investigator of NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission.
Herd says, “Lindy has done a lot of work on how the cores of planets form, how these iron nickel cores form, and the closest analogue we have are iron meteorites. So it made sense to name a mineral after her and recognise her contributions to science."
Herd classified the El Ali meteorite as an “Iron, IAB complex” meteorite, one of more than 350 in that particular category.
Locock’s rapid identification was possible because the two minerals had been synthetically created before, so he was able to match the composition of the newly discovered natural minerals with their human-made counterparts.
Researchers are continuing to examine the minerals to determine what they can tell us about the conditions in the meteorite when it formed.
“That’s my expertise how you tease out the geologic processes and the geologic history of the asteroid this rock was once part of,” says Herd.
“I never thought I’d be involved in describing brand new minerals just by virtue of working on a meteorite.”
Herd also notes that any new mineral discoveries could possibly yield exciting new uses down the line.
“Whenever there’s a new material that’s known, material scientists are interested too because of the potential uses in a wide range of things in society.”
Herd says the researchers have received news that the meteorite appears to have been moved to China in search of a potential buyer.
It remains to be seen whether additional samples will be available for scientific purposes.
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