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Water in Meteorites?

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NASA’s announcement and what it means for meteorite studies

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made an enthralling announcement on Monday, October 26 sure to captivate the imaginations of scientists and space enthusiasts alike. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, commonly known as SOFIA, “…confirmed, for the first time, water on the sunlit surface of the Moon.” This is a major scientific discovery, as it implies that we might find water everywhere on the Moon and not just in cold, shadowy regions.

The area SOFIA detected water in is called the Clavius Crater, one of the largest lunar craters we can see from Earth and namesake of the fictional lunar administrative facility, Clavius Base, in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Researchers are working on theories to explain how water got there and ways humans can use it in future space exploration missions. Some scientists posit that micrometeorites, tiny meteorites measuring less than a millimeter in size, may have deposited water molecules on the lunar surface. Others believe a process involving solar wind and a chemical reaction with the minerals on the Moon’s surface may have created hydroxyl groups – entities that contain an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom – which was then converted to water by radiation. 

Why Water Matters

What can scientists do with this information? Well, water is essential to life as we know it and its presence outside Earth is key to uncovering whether extraterrestrial life exists and if it does, how it came to be. Scientists have been able to confirm that some planetary bodies, like asteroid Vesta, contain water. The presence of water on Vesta and other planets/asteroids are a clue for scientists trying to determine where water on Earth originated. Finding water sources on the Moon and Mars will be an instrumental aspect of future deep space exploration missions, as water can be converted into fuel and would dramatically decrease launch costs.

Explaining how water came to be in the solar system not only impacts our future, it tells us about how it was formed, how organic life came to be, and gives us an idea of what Earth was like in its infancy. For example, a study published in Science Advances in 2018 stated that liquid water and organic compounds were found in salt crystals from two meteorites, Zag and Monahans. Meteorites that contain salt crystals are imperative to planetary research because the compounds trapped in them shed light on the origins of organic life in space. These compounds also tell a story about where in the solar system these meteorites came from. Zag, for example, is suspected to have originated from Ceres, a dwarf planet, and the asteroid Hebe.

Impact on Meteorites

The salt crystals found in Zag are called halites, and can only be seen using highly specialized equipment and techniques in a controlled laboratory environment. However, their presence underscores the importance of meteorite studies in planetary science. Collectors looking for something that contributed to our understanding of the cosmos would be thrilled to own a piece of Zag. As technology becomes more sophisticated and investigative techniques improve, we can expect the scientific community to continue to dazzle us with what they uncover about the world around us, where we’re going, and where we came from. 

Crescent Moon on OpenMoji 12.3

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Triumph for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx

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Triumph for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx on Asteroid Bennu

What do we hope to learn from asteroid Bennu? 

Incredible things happen in outer space all the time; stars explode, pulsars pump beams of radiation and radio waves into the cosmos, asteroids hurtle into other asteroids and planetary bodies, and supermassive black holes feed on entire galaxies. Most of these things happen without our knowledge or involvement, but on Tuesday, October 20, a small spacecraft named after the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris, briefly touched and collected a small sample from an oddly-shaped asteroid, Bunnu. 

The asteroid was named after an ancient Egyptian mythological bird-deity by a 9 year-old-boy in a NASA “Name the Asteroid” competition. The Bennu bird is associated with the sun, creation, and rebirth; an appropriate moniker, given that scientists believe that the asteroid is made up of material left over from when the solar system was created. 

Why is Bennu Important?

Bennu’s orbit lies somewhere between those of Earth and Mars, one of the reasons the OSIRIS-Rex team chose to study it; it’s classified as a near-Earth asteroid, which means it might one day come too close to Earth for comfort. Amazingly enough, researchers also believe Bennu may have inherited some material from Vesta, another asteroid under heavy study from academics. 

Vesta is the second most massive body on the asteroid belt and is even occasionally visible from Earth with the naked eye. Vesta is also one of the only surviving rocky protoplanets, a term that describes matter which is thought to be developing into a planet. Studying asteroids like Bennu and Vesta can reveal valuable information about how planets in our solar system formed, especially Earth. Aside from its connection to Vesta, scientists are also interested in Bennu because it may house organic compounds and wet clays – an indication that Bennu might very closely resemble what primordial Earth looked like. 

The sample the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected won’t arrive back to Earth until 2023, but the team has mechanisms in place that will enable them to study the sample remotely, primarily to determine how much material they were actually able to collect. There’s a chance the spacecraft didn’t collect a large enough sample or collect anything at all. If that’s the case, then the team will attempt another TAG (touch-and-go) maneuver at a different site. 

What Can We Hope to Discover?

Among other things, scientists hope the return sample will contain pieces of rock that match the kind found on Vesta for further study. These rocks, called pyroxene, are Vesta’s signature and are clearly identifiable on Bennu’s surface because of their bright color and physical characteristics. While we haven’t identified any meteorites from Bennu yet, meteorite specialists have identified meteorites they believe to have been pieces of asteroid Vesta. For example, NWA 7831, is primarily composed of a type of pyroxene called orthopyroxene, a green-colored material that occurs in igneous rocks and rare meteorites. This is extremely rare material, and missions like OSIRIS-REx are sure to answer some of the questions we still have about meteorites. 

Did you know that you can own meteorites from asteroid Vesta? Aerolite has pieces that start at $25.00. Click here to view available inventory!

Shooting Star on Microsoft Windows 10 May 2019 Update

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Watch Geoff Notkin on Disney+

Watch Geoff on Disney+!

Aerolite CEO and founder, Geoffrey Notkin of Meteorite Men fame, has made an appearance on National Geographic’s Weird But True!, streaming now on Disney+. The children’s show explores strange and interesting facts about the universe and puts a fun, theatrical spin on them. The hosts, siblings Charlie and Kirby Engelman (Seasons 1 and 2), set out to do so in the studio and out on the field. Episode 1 of the show’s debut season features Geoff as its special guest educator and delves into all things space rocks and the difference between asteroids, comets, and meteorites.

Hosts Charlie and Kirby join Geoff at the White Stallion Ranch, a family-owned 3,000-acre ranch near Saguaro National Park West in Tucson, Arizona, with which Geoff has a long-standing relationship. The secluded grounds and desert landscape were perfect for a meteorite-hunting exercise Geoff designed for the Weird But True! hosts. Arizona itself has proven to be a popular meteorite hunting destination and is home to Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies, which boasts one of the world’s largest collection of meteorites.

Arizona is also home to Meteor Crater, the “…world’s best-preserved meteorite impact site on Earth,” which was also featured in the episode. Meteor Crater, also known as Barringer Crater or Canyon Diablo Crater, lies in northern Arizona. Meteorites from the site, called Canyon Diablo, are incredibly rare, as hunting in the crater is now prohibited. The crater itself is now a popular attraction for tourists, researchers, and meteorite enthusiasts. It was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1967.

You can watch Geoff in Weird But True! on Disney+ and let us know what you learn!

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