Research: Oldest-ever igneous meteorite contains clues to planet building blocks

Northwest Africa 11119 is the oldest igneous meteorite recorded. Credit University of New Mexico

11119 is the oldest igneous meteorite recorded. A 23g subsample deposited at the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico was used for this study. Under the influence of gravity, material accreted into small chunks that got larger and larger, forming planetesimals. Many such objects likely broke back apart as they collided with each other, but others would have coalesced - eventually becoming planets and moons. One study published in Nature concluded that Earth lost almost 40 percent of its mass as vapor during collisional growth.

It wasn't immediately clear that the rock was extraterrestrial because of its light color, the researchers told Live Science.

The analysis of the ancient grapefruit-sized space rock, known as Orgueil, revealed the elemental building blocks for life.

Using samples from the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, Tartèse and Co. spent two years measuring and interpreting the oxygen isotope composition of organics in the early meteorites.

Meteorites can serve as time-capsules, and researchers study the chemical composition of meteorites in hopes that it will shed light on the what chemical processes drove the formation of the solar system.

"The age of this meteorite is the oldest, igneous meteorite ever recorded", Agee said in a statement.

"Not only is this just an extremely unusual rock type, it's telling us that not all asteroids look the same". And because it's right around the age of this solar system, it must be from "one of the very first volcanic events to take place" in this part of the universe, said Carl Agee, a meteorite curator at the University of New Mexico.

Artist impression of NWA) 11119 seen in right bottom corner. Credit University of New Mexico
Artist impression of NWA) 11119 seen in right bottom corner. Credit University of New Mexico

According to Srinivasan, the mineralogy of the rock is unlike anything the researchers have worked on before.

"One of the main things we saw first were the large silica crystals of tridymite which is a similar to the mineral quartz".

"The oxygen isotopes of NWA11119, NWA 7235, and Almahata Sitta are all identical, but this rock - NWA 11119 - stands out as something completely different from any of the over 40,000 meteorites that have been found on Earth", said Srinivasan.

It is believed that when the gas/dust cloud collapsed, it formed a spinning disc-shaped area with the very same sun that we know and love in the middle.

"The goal of this research was to understand the origin and formation time of an unusually silica-rich igneous meteorite", says co-author and ASU's Center for Meteorite Studies director, Meenakshi Wadhwa. While some do look similar to what we can find on Earth, it is due to a high quantity of silica.

A space rock formed 4.5 billion years ago during the birth of the Solar System could help us understand the origins of life on Earth.

Carbonaceous chondrites are made of the first solid materials - such as rocks, organics, water ice, and fine grain dust - formed in the Solar System.

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