Minerals found in Somali meteorite are new to science

Minerals found in Somali meteorite are new to science

A space rock that crashed in Somalia decades ago remained partially encased in sand until 2020, when researchers dug it up and sliced ​​it up for samples. Inside the 15-tonne meteorite – the ninth largest ever found intact on this planet – were two minerals, and possibly a third, that had never been seen before on Earth. The discovery could not only inform theories about asteroid formation, but inspire new forms of synthetic materials for future manufacture.

El Ali is a small village in the Hiiraan region of Somalia, with a population of less than 200,000, but a long time ago it received a new visitor from space. Local camel herders have known the hunk of iron (mostly), which they call “Nightfall”, for five to seven generations. The El Ali meteorite has been “memorized through Saarland folklore, songs, dances and poems”, according to a report from the Weather Bulletin Database. They even used the rock as an anvil to sharpen their knives.

In September 2019, artisanal miners were hunting for opal in El Ali, as the desert region is rich in the popular gemstone. When they heard about El Ali’s Stone, they immediately recognized it as a meteorite and took a sample from it. The prospectors, from the Kureym Mining and Rocks Company, sent a single 70-gram slice to Chris Herd, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and curator of the University of Alberta.

After the specimen was polished and etched, it revealed an unmistakable Widmanstätten pattern, which is a key indicator that this rock originated from another world. When he dissolved and analyzed the sample, Herd discovered two minerals that had never been found on Earth before. He nicknamed them elaliite and elkinstantonite.

The first is named after El Ali, the region where the meteorite was found, while the second is named after planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. and principal investigator of NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission. , which is expected to explore the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche in 2029.

“Lindy has done a lot of work on the formation of the cores of planets, the formation of these iron-nickel cores, and the closest analogue we have are iron meteorites. So it made sense to name a mineral and to recognize its contributions to science,” Herd explained in a statement. “Whenever a new material is known, materials scientists are also interested because of the potential uses in a wide range of things in the society.”

There could be more minerals to discover in the meteorite, but further analysis is needed. The reason elaliite and elkinstantonite were relatively easy to detect is that they were both made synthetically in a lab in the 1980s, so chemists had references to fall back on. But lab-made materials aren’t technically minerals, so they aren’t given special names like grossite, a mineral made from calcium and aluminum oxide found on Earth and in meteorites.

“On the very first day, he [Locock] did some analysis, he said, “You have at least two new minerals in there,” Herd said. “It was phenomenal. Most of the time, it takes a lot more work than that to tell there’s a new mineral.”

A mineral is a solid inorganic substance that occurs naturally. Under the right conditions, it can form crystals, depending on its chemical composition. Diamonds are pure carbon minerals. There are many types of minerals that were first discovered in meteorites, some of which have interesting names like brianite and xifenguite.

Herd noticed something odd about El Ali during his analysis, but then he called in Andrew Locock, the head of the University of Alberta’s electron microprobe lab, whose work has included the description of heamanite-(Ce), a new mineral discovered inside a diamond in 2020. .

“On the very first day, he [Locock] did some analysis, he said, “You have at least two new minerals in there,” Herd said. “It was phenomenal. Most of the time, it takes a lot more work than that to tell there’s a new mineral.”

Herd presented his findings for the first time at the Space Exploration Symposium on Nov. 21, describing the unique way El Ali likely formed. Most iron meteorites were part of an asteroid’s core, but El Ali is the exception to the rule.

“It is believed to have formed by asteroid impact-induced fusion,” Herd explained at the symposium. Sometimes asteroids collide so hard that their materials can melt. “During the collisions between the asteroids, this metallic dust, these metallic particles melted and were assembled into one large molten body which was then broken apart. And each of these meteorites can then be linked to this molten body.”

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The results will soon be published in a peer-reviewed journal, Herd told Salon in an email, which will cover the occurrences of the new minerals and the interpretation of the conditions under which they formed.

But a question seemingly lost in the cover of this space rock is, didn’t it technically belong to the people of El Ali? In other words, was it taken without the permission of these people who seem to have a strong cultural connection to this meteorite?

“What I understand is that the meteorite was taken from its original location by the researchers to Mogadishu, where it was allegedly confiscated by the government,” Herd told Salon. “However, it was eventually released, allowing it to be exported to China. I don’t know much beyond that – except to say that I know meteorites like this can have cultural and historical significance. We (the scientists involved in classifying the meteorite) hope that something can be done to recognize this potential significance.”

The study of meteorites and asteroids (the difference being that a meteorite is an asteroid that has crashed into Earth) can tell us a lot about what the early solar system looked like and how it formed there. 4.6 billion years old. There are potentially other minerals waiting to be discovered at El Ali, one of which is being reviewed by the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification of the International Neurological Association, according to the presentation by Herd.

Unfortunately, while this sample that Herd and others were able to obtain weighed less than 100 grams, as Herd mentioned, the rest of the 15.5 ton meteorite was transported to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, then transferred to China, where it may be waiting to be sold. El Ali has a long, chaotic history that brought him to Earth, but for now, his future is uncertain.

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