How to bake a meteorite — scientists are heating up space rocks to recreate the birth of planets

How to bake a meteorite — scientists are heating up space rocks to recreate the birth of planets
Illustration of how the early atmospheres of rocky planets form mostly from gases released from the surface as a result of the intense heating during the accretion of planetary building blocks and later volcanic activity early in the planet’s developmentDan Durda/Southwest Research Institute)/UCSC

  • A team of scientists at UC Santa Cruz in the US are baking meteorites like Hot Pockets to answer questions about how planets are formed.
  • They roasted three samples of space rocks that have the closest composition of the material from the formation of our solar system.
  • Instead of helium and hydrogen dominating the outpour of gases as the rocks heated up, they found a different compound in the lead.
Meteorites are often referred to as what was ‘left over’ from the building blocks of our solar system after the Big Bang — the explosion which brought the universe into existence. Now, scientists are roasting these space rocks in a lab to try and recreate the birth of planets.

"We're trying to simulate in the laboratory this very early process when a planet's atmosphere is forming so we can put some experimental constraints on that story," explained Myrian Telus, one of the co-authors of the study published in Nature Astronomy.

According to her, when the building blocks of a planet are coming together, the material is heated and gases are produced. And if the planet is large enough the gases will be retained as its atmosphere.

These meteorites burn up to unleash water vapour

Most models, when working on planetary formation, assume that planets have composition that’s similar to their host star or their Sun. This means their atmospheres should have an abundance of hydrogen and helium.

However, outgassing — the process by which the meteorites release gas — shows that water vapour is the dominant gas. Even the second and third most abundant gases are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. "Using solar abundances is fine for large, Jupiter-size planets that acquire their atmospheres from the solar nebula, but smaller planets are thought to get their atmospheres more from outgassing," said Telus.


How to bake a meteorite

Baking a meteorite in order to figure out how planets are formed is not as simple as putting a rock into an oven. The researchers at UC Santa Cruz actually had to set up a furnace and connect it to a mass spectrometer and vacuum system.

How to bake a meteorite — scientists are heating up space rocks to recreate the birth of planets
Mass spectrometre connected to a furnace and vacuum system for the meteriorite experimentJeremy Colvin/UCSC

A mass spectrometer measures the mass to charge ratio of ions. These measurements are often used to calculate the exact molecular weight of a sample component — like, how much water vapour or hydrogen is present.

The vacuum system ensures a sterile environment — nothing from the outside can penetrate the experiment and sully the results.

Selecting the main ingredient is key

Once the system was set up, the team had to pick out their meteorites — Murchison, Jbilet Winselwan, and Aguas Zarcas.

All three of them are CM-type carbonaceous-chondrites. Simply put, the materials they are made up of is the closest match to the materials which formed the sun and planets.

How to bake a meteorite — scientists are heating up space rocks to recreate the birth of planets
The three meteorites analyzed for this study were the Murchison chondrite, which fell in Australia in 1969; Jbilet Winselwan, collected in Western Sahara in 2013; and Aguas Zarcas, which fell in Costa Rica in 2019M. Thompson/UCSC

They’re also different from other meteorites in the sense that they don’t get hot enough to melt. “They have held onto some of the more primitive components that can tell us about the composition of the solar system around the time of planet formation," explained Maggi Thompson, the lead author of the study.

These rocks were heated to a whopping temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius, and the system analysed the gases that were produced as a result. In addition to water vapour, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxides, the researchers also found small amounts of hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide gases.

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