New Type of Mineral Found in Historic Meteorite
The new mineral was discovered within the meteorite officially designated Yamato 691 enstatite chondrite. The meteorite was discovered the same year as other landmark meteorites Allende and Murchison and the return of the first Apollo lunar samples.
The study of meteorites helps define our understanding of the formation and history of the Solar System. The meteorite likely may have originated from an asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.
Wassonite is among the tiniest, yet most important, minerals identified in the 4.5-billion-year-old sample. The research team, headed by NASA space scientist Keiko Nakamura-Messenger, added the mineral to the list of 4,500 officially approved by the International Mineralogical Association.
“Wassonite is a mineral formed from only two elements, sulfur and titanium, yet it possesses a unique crystal structure that has not been previously observed in nature,” said Nakamura-Messenger.
In 1969, members of the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition discovered nine meteorites on the blue ice field of the Yamato Mountains in Antarctica. This was the first significant recovery of Antarctic meteorites and represented samples of several different types. As a result, the United States and Japan conducted systematic follow-up searches for meteorites in Antarctica that recovered more than 40,000 specimens, including extremely rare martian and lunar meteorites.
Researchers found Wassonite surrounded by additional unknown minerals that are being investigated. The mineral is less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair, or 50 x 450 nanometers. It would have been impossible to discover without NASA’s transmission electron microscope, which is capable of isolating the Wassonite grains and determining their chemical composition and atomic structure.
“More secrets of the universe can be revealed from these specimens using 21st-century nanotechnology,” said Nakamura-Messenger.
The new mineral’s name was approved by the International Mineralogical Association. It honors John T. Wasson, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Wasson is known for his achievements across a broad swath of meteorite and impact research, including the use of neutron activation data to classify meteorites and to formulate models for the chemical makeup of bulk chondrites.
Building a clear picture of the conditions and processes that formed the Solar System can help astrobiologists understand how small, rocky planets like Earth and Mars form. Determining the inventory of materials found in meteorites is also an essential step in understanding their potential role in delivering the ingredients for life to the early Earth.