February 7, 2023

Two minerals - never before seen on Earth - were discovered in a huge meteorite

Two minerals – never before seen on Earth – were discovered in a huge meteorite

A slice of the El Ali meteorite, now in the University of Alberta’s Meteorite Collection, contains two minerals never before seen on Earth. Credit: University of Alberta

New minerals discovered in a huge meteorite may reveal clues to asteroid formation.

A team of researchers has discovered at least two new minerals never before seen on Earth in a 33,000 lb (15,000 kg) meteorite found in Somalia in 2020. This giant meteorite is the ninth largest ever found.

“When you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rocks, were different than what was found before,” says Chris Hurd, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and curator of the Alberta meteorite collection. “That’s what makes this exciting: In this particular meteorite you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”

One 70-gram slice of the meteorite was sent to the University of Alberta for classification, which is where the two minerals were discovered. It appears that there is already a possible third mineral under study. Hurd notes that if researchers get more samples from the massive meteorite, there’s a chance they’ll find more minerals.

The two newly discovered minerals have been named elaliite and elkinstantonite. The first name, elaliite, comes from the meteorite itself, which is officially called “Most HighA meteorite because it was found near the town of Al-Ali in the Hieran region of Somalia. Flock named elkenstantonite the second mineral after Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the Planetary Initiative at ASU, professor in ASU’s College of Earth and Space Exploration, and principal investigator for the study.[{” attribute=””>NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission.

El Ali Meteorite

A slice of the El Ali meteorite contains two minerals never before seen on Earth. Credit: University of Alberta

“Lindy has done a lot of work on how the cores of planets form, how these iron-nickel cores form, and the closest analogue we have are iron meteorites. So it made sense to name a mineral after her and recognize her contributions to science,” Herd explains.

In collaboration with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Herd classified the El Ali meteorite as an “Iron, IAB complex” meteorite, one of over 350 in that particular category.

As Herd was analyzing the meteorite to classify it, he saw something that caught his attention. He brought in the expertise of Andrew Locock, head of the University of Alberta’s Electron Microprobe Laboratory, who has been involved in other new mineral descriptions including Heamanite-(Ce).

“The very first day he did some analyses, he said, ‘You’ve got at least two new minerals in there,’” says Herd. “That was phenomenal. Most of the time it takes a lot more work than that to say there’s a new mineral.”

Locock’s rapid identification was possible because the two minerals had been synthetically created before, so he was able to match the composition of the newly discovered natural minerals with their human-made counterparts.

Scientists are still examining the minerals in detail to determine what they can tell us about the conditions in the meteorite when it formed.

“That’s my expertise — how you tease out the geologic processes and the geologic history of the asteroid this rock was once part of,” says Herd. “I never thought I’d be involved in describing brand new minerals just by virtue of working on a meteorite.”

Herd also notes that any new mineral discoveries could possibly yield exciting new uses down the line.

“Whenever there’s a new material that’s known, material scientists are interested too because of the potential uses in a wide range of things in society.”

While the future of the meteorite remains uncertain, Herd says the researchers have received news that it appears to have been moved to China in search of a potential buyer. It remains to be seen whether additional samples will be available for scientific purposes.

Herd described the findings at the Space Exploration Symposium on November 21 at the University of Alberta’s ETLC Solarium.