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Meteorites on Earth and Pieces of Theia

Today’s post is a story of two very strange meteorites, one odd because of its bizarre differences to anything else we’ve ever seen in meteorites and one that is bizarre because of its eerie similarity to something we most definitely have seen.

Hypatia Stone

The first of these is the so-called Hypatia stone. It was found in 1996, and seemingly associated with a unique apparently impact related yellow glass, the Libyan Desert Glass, that is seen in the same area of the Sahara desert. This meteorite is thought to have originated when the nucleus of a comet impacted earth about 28 million years ago. But it soon became apparent that part of this material was extremely primitive, even for material from a comet, so much so that it may predate the formation of our solar system.

Chemically, parts of the meteorite are very unlike the general makeup of our solar system. For example, the meteor has high levels of carbon, but deficient levels of silicon compared to the composition of a typical asteroid, or earth, essentially opposite so. The carbon compounds themselves in the meteorite are also unusual, called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, these tend to be more associated with interstellar dust rather than solar system objects.

Meteorite Contains Metal Inclusions

Another weird aspect of the meteorite is that it contains metal inclusions that include things like metallic aluminum which in that form is extremely rare in the solar system. While far from unusual, most aluminum in the solar system occurred in compounds and locked up ores. Other chemical oddities in the stone include an association of nickel and phosphorus, with very little iron, unlike ordinary meteorites where nickel and iron go hand in hand.

Much of the meteor, however, isn’t like this, only parts of it, presumably because the material collected together when the object formed, some of it from the solar nebula, and some of it possibly dating from before the solar system developed. All that’s known about its formation is that the environment was cold, -196 Celsius, and could represent extrasolar material that was incorporated into the matrix of the meteorite. However, it could also be that the element represents some unknown differentiation in the early solar nebula.

NWA 5400

The other strange meteor is the exact opposite of the Hypatia stone. Cataloged as NWA 5400, this meteorite isn’t noteworthy for how weird it is, but how familiar. While it’s exact origins can’t be pinned down definitively, while it’s undoubtedly a meteorite, oxygen isotopes found in this meteorite are very similar to the earth-moon system, eerily so.

Possible Origins Of These Meteorites

This could mean it has three possible origins. It may just be chance, and that it’s from a parent body asteroid that just happens to have similar isotope ratios to the moon and Earth, maybe it formed nearby. Another possibility is that it’s the first rock from earth blasted off during the impact that created the moon, or at some other time, that wandered the solar system for billions of years before returning home. The third possibility is perhaps the most interesting, in that the rock might have originated on Theia, the roughly Mars-sized object that smacked into proto-earth in a glancing blow knocking the material off that would eventually form the moon.

Problems With These Possibilities

There are problems with all three possibilities, one model of Theia suggests that it was probably mostly ice having originated out around the frost line in the solar system, but this is not known for sure. However, regardless, this is one strange meteorite, and it opens up the possibility that as we explore the solar system, and find more meteorites here on earth. We might see pieces of earth’s early history floating around in the solar system revealing information about our world, evidence of which long ago weathered away or disappeared down here, or we might find out information about the formation of other planets such as Venus and Mars when they were in a much more primitive, and perhaps even habitable state.

Moreover, as always, there is the possibility that studying such meteorites might also reveal clues about panspermia, the idea that bodies in the solar system could have exchanged materials that preserved life, and seeded it to multiple entities in the solar system. It’s even possible that early life on earth may not have originated here, but rather Mars. While that’s speculation, the study of meteorites gives us a unique sampling of asteroids, comets and objects across our solar system’s history.

Moreover, with all of this talk about interstellar objects as of late, we might learn hands-on about distant planets in the milky way from the comfort of home.

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