Two substances previously not found on Earth have been identified and named.
A slice of the El Ali meteorite that fell in Somalia in 2020. Image credit: University of Alberta
A giant meteorite that fell in Somalia in 2020 contains at least two minerals that have never before been seen on our planet. The minerals have been identified by researchers at the University of Alberta, according to a press release.
Tons of space material enters the Earth’s atmosphere every day but very few actually survive the journey through the atmosphere and hit the ground. Instead, they tend to burn up instantly from the outside in, as friction with the atmosphere causes them to ablate.
For this reason, few large meteorites reach the planet’s surface, and the one that fell near the town of El Ali in Somalia is definitely an exception. The celestial piece of rock weighs a massive 16.5 tons (15 tonnes), making it the ninth-largest meteorite ever found.
The 15-ton El Ali meteorite found in Somalia is the ninth-largest meteorite ever found. Image credit: University of Alberta
After a small piece of the meteorite weighing about 2.5 ounces (70 grams) was sent to the University of Alberta for classification, researchers identified two minerals that are not found on Earth.
“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,” said Chris Herd, a professor in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and curator of the University of Alberta’s Meteorite Collection. “That’s what makes this exciting: In this particular meteorite you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”
The El Ali meteorite is big, but it is dwarfed by the 60-tonne, 2.7 m (8.9 ft) long Hoba meteorite in Namibia, the largest known intact meteorite. Image credit: Calips
It usually takes a considerable amount of work to confirm the presence of a new mineral, but in this case, the two minerals identified had been synthetically created before. In this way, the team could match their compositions quickly to confirm their discovery. An initial analysis by the Electron Microprobe Laboratory at the University of Alberta also confirmed their presence in the meteorite.
The two newly discovered minerals have been named elaliite and elkinstantonite. The first receives its name from the meteorite itself, while the second mineral was named after professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission.
“Lindy has done a lot of work on how the cores of planets form, how these iron-nickel cores form, and the closest analog we have are iron meteorites,” Herd added. “So it made sense to name a mineral after her and recognize her contributions to science.”
Scientists would need a bigger piece of the meteorite to be able to carry on researching the meteorite’s composition. Image credit: University of Alberta
Interestingly, there is a third new mineral that is under consideration, and its presence can only be confirmed after further analysis of completed. If researchers were to obtain more samples from the massive meteorite, there’s a chance that even more might be found, Herd noted.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to happen soon though, as the El Ali meteorite has since reportedly been moved to China to be sold there. Whether a potential buyer would allow further samples to be taken for scientific purposes remains to be seen.