October 2, 2014

12.04.11: The Weigh-in on Wassonite.

A sliver of Wassonite… (Credit: NASA/JSC).

Sometimes, it pays to go back and take a peek at old samples with new equipment. Recently, NASA scientists working in collaboration with South Korean and Japanese researchers have announced the discovery of Wassonite (rhymes with the fictional Kryptonite!) a mineral with a crystalline structure and composition unseen on Earth. The sample comes from a meteorite dubbed Yamato 691, an enstatite chondrite recovered from the Antarctic continent in 1969. This was a hallmark year for meteoriticists; the Allende and Murchison samples were also brought back from Antarctica as well as the first lunar samples returned via Apollo XI the same year.  

Wassonite is a mineral consisting of two elements of titanium and sulfur. The sample size pictured above is tiny, measuring only 50 x 450 nanometers. The name comes as a tribute to UCLA’s professor John T. Wasson, who pioneered the study of the composition of chondrites. The meteorite most likely spent most of its 4.5 billion year life span traversing the inner solar system before being scooped up by scientists. Antarctica is prime meteorite hunting territory because the rocks periodically calve off from the glacial till and show up in stark contrast to the ice and snow.

So, why did it take over 30 years to make the find? Thank NASA’s transmission electron microscope technology, which was able to pinpoint and characterize the tiny find (the smallest sample designated as a new extraterrestrial mineral, in fact) sandwiched between other known minerals. This find gives us a snapshot of what the early formation of the solar system might have been like, and will pave the way for more discoveries to come!

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