Tiny fragment of a comet found inside a meteorite that landed in Antarctica could hold crucial clues to the origins of the solar system
- It landed in Antarctica and could shed light on the origins of the solar system
- Named LaPaz after the ice field it was found in and contains a sliver of comet
- Belongs to a primitive class of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites
- Thought to have formed beyond Jupiter and then circled inwards towards Earth
- Comet material swallowed by an asteroid and then fragmented into the meteoroid before it crashed to Earth
A sliver of a distant comet from the dawn of the solar system has been discovered in an unlikely place – inside a meteorite which crashed into Antarctica.
The merging of the space rocks could offer scientists new clues to understand how the sun and its orbiting planets came to exist.
Astronomers likened it to the capture of prehistoric insects in amber and say it is in remarkably pristine shape despite crashing into an icefield.
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The arrow in this view of the LaPaz meteorite points to where the scientists found the carbon-rich comet fragment. The colours are produced BY polarised light shining through a thin slice of the meteorite. It may shed light on the formation of the planet’s in the solar system
The remarkably well preserved rock enabled scientists to carry out a detailed chemical analysis. and they discovered the carbon-rich slice of primitive material.
It is just a tenth of a millimetre across – the thickness of a human hair – and has a striking similarity to extraterrestrial dust particles.
These are believed to have originated in comets that first formed near the outer edges of the Solar System’s.
Comets contain larger fractions of water ice and far more carbon than asteroids do.
Approximately 3.5 million years after the birth of the Sun and planets, the comet material was picked up by the growing asteroid, the study claims.
This was long before Earth had even finished growing, the international team report in Nature Astronomy.
By studying a meteorite’s chemistry and mineralogy, researchers can reveal details about its formation.
They can also tell how much heating and other chemical processing it experienced during the solar system’s formative years.
Researchers claim the remarkable rock, name LaPaz after the ice field it was found in, provides a vital missing link in the search to understand how the planet’s of the solar system first formed.
The carbon-rich fragment of the material comets are built from is coloured red in this scanning electron microscope image. Comets contain larger fractions of water ice and far more carbon than asteroids do. Approximately 3.5 million years after the birth of the Sun and planets, the comet material was picked up by the growing asteroid, the study claims
LaPaz belongs to a particularly primitive class of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites are thought to have formed beyond Jupiter.
Professor Larry Nittler said: ‘Because this sample of cometary building block material was swallowed by an asteroid and preserved inside this meteorite, it was protected from the ravages of entering Earth’s atmosphere.’
Meteorites were once part of larger bodies, called asteroids, which eventually broke up due to collisions in space.
Their makeup can vary substantially, reflecting their varying origins in different parent bodies that formed in different parts of the Solar System.
Professor Nittler, of The Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, said: ‘It gave us a peek at material that would not have survived to reach our planet’s surface on its own – helping us to understand the early Solar System’s chemistry.’
The primitive material’s existence inside the meteorite indicates such particles migrated from the outer edges to the closer-in area beyond Jupiter where the carbonaceous chondrites formed.
This was due to drag from the surrounding gas – revealing details about how our Solar System’s architecture was shaped during the early stages of planet formation.
Professor Nittler said it supports the idea of a ‘radially inward transport of materials’ from the outer proto-planetary disk into a carbon reservoir.
This was during the birth of the rock fragments that ended up developing into Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, Neptune, Venus, Uranus, Saturn – and Earth.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SPACE ROCKS?
An asteroid is a large chunk of rock left over from collisions or the early solar system. Most are located between Mars and Jupiter in the Main Belt.
A comet is a rock covered in ice, methane and other compounds. Their orbits take them much further out of the solar system.
A meteor is what astronomers call a flash of light in the atmosphere when debris burns up.
This debris itself is known as a meteoroid. Most are so small they are vapourised in the atmosphere.
If any of this meteoroid makes it to Earth, it is called a meteorite.
Meteors, meteoroids and meteorites normally originate from asteroids and comets.
For example, if Earth passes through the tail of a comet, much of the debris burns up in the atmosphere, forming a meteor shower.