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Diamond Light Source provides facilities to help researchers across all scientific disciplines. Among these, Space and planetary sciences are certainly not the final frontier at Diamond! Several beamlines have users visiting from all over the world to analyse their samples, using a range of cutting edge techniques. And their samples come from even further!
Many meteorites have been analysed at Diamond. One of the most famous is ALH 84001. This Martian meteorite was discovered in Antarctica in 1984 and is considered one of the oldest known rocks to reach Earth from Mars. The team’s analysis showed that organic molecules found in the Allan Hills meteorite were synthesised during interactions between water and rocks that occurred on the Red Planet about 3.6 – 4 billion years ago. Their findings were published in the journal Science.
A key part of this research was the investigation into the carbon within the meteorite. The team brought samples of the meteorite to Diamond for Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscopy experiments at the I08 beamline. This technique helped to generate a detailed elemental distribution map for the carbon in the sample and provided part of the evidence that the interactions between water and rocks on Mars produced organic material from the reduction of carbon dioxide.
Another technique used to study the composition of meteorites is X-ray Fluorescence. Such experiments can be done at the I18 Microfocus Beamline. In a recent study of Martian meteorites, researchers wanted to map the spatial distribution of volatile elements sulfur and chlorine. These elements have an important role in the formation of rocks, and can provide information useful for the determination of habitability as they are involved in many biochemical reactions in living organisms. Indeed, studying the composition of crystals in these rocks, provides information on the formation conditions of these rocks in the mantle of Mars, such as an estimation of the temperature, or the possible composition of the magma. Previous studies were done on bulk meteorite, and the results showed discrepancies in the concentration of volatile elements.
In this study the authors measured the concentrations of volatiles in nakhlite clinopyroxene crystals using I18. This technique allows analysis of trace elements at concentrations down to the parts per million level at micrometre-scale spatial resolution. With their results, they confirmed previously determined concentrations of sulfur and chlorine, but mapping the spatial distribution of volatiles in three clinopyroxene crystals demonstrates that S and Cl concentrations changed significantly from the core to the rim, indicating that in some instances additional volatiles were assimilated into the crystal, while in others, volatiles were lost, possibly by outgassing during the final stages of growth. Igneous rock formation is fundamental to the transport of volatiles from the interior of terrestrial planets to their surfaces and atmospheres. The analysis of volatiles in igneous rocks from other planets thus provides insight into their storage and transport, and into the potential geodynamic scenarios occurring within the planet.
A complementary technique available at the B22 beamline is IR spectroscopy, or more precisely, FTIR (Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy). This technique is helpful to characterise the composition of a meteorite. In a paper published in Meteoritics & Planetary Sciences, a team of researchers from the National History Museum wanted to finely characterise the Jbilet Winselwan meteorite. This meteorite was found in the western Sahara and belongs to the carbonaceous chondrite family. As this meteorite has been found in a desert, it is expected that its residence time on Earth is shorter than other chondrites found in Antarctica (the major source of chondrites). As a “fresh” meteorite, the researchers wanted to understand the weathering effects compared to other meteorites. Indeed, entry in to the Earth’s atmosphere, impact on the ground, and exposure to weather for thousands of years are elements that will modify the physical properties of meteorites and therefore impact on the information we can obtain. In this paper, by using micro spectroscopy and other techniques, they found that this meteorite was indeed modified by the Earth’s weather and that the impact caused heating, probably to around 500°C. Carbonaceous chondrites are meteorites that are believed to have undergone the least alteration within their parent bodies and, as such, contain materials that originate from, and record, processes that occurred in the very early stages of the Solar System. IR spectroscopy was also used to compare spectra with other meteorites, indicating that this meteorite probably originated from the Veritas family of asteroids.
Of course, landing on Earth is not the only process responsible for the alteration of celestial bodies. Space itself also plays a role. Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid, around 900 metres in diameter, first discovered in 1999 within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. In 2014, the Japanese state space agency JAXA launched Hayabusa2, an asteroid sample-return mission, to rendezvous with the Ryugu asteroid and collect material samples from its surface and sub-surface. The spacecraft returned to Earth in 2020, releasing a capsule containing precious fragments of the asteroid. Researchers from the University of Leicester brought one of these fragments Diamond’s Nanoprobe beamline I14 where a technique called X-ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) was used to map out the chemical states of the elements within the asteroid material, to examine its composition in fine detail. The team also studied the asteroid grains using an electron microscope at Diamond’s electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC). The data collected at Diamond contributed to a wider study of the space weathering signatures on the asteroid. The pristine asteroid samples enabled the collaborators to explore how space weathering can alter the physical and chemical composition of the surface of carbonaceous asteroids like Ryugu.
The researchers discovered that the surface of Ryugu is dehydrated and that it is likely that space weathering is responsible. The findings of the study, published in Nature Astronomy, have led the authors to conclude that asteroids that appear dry on the surface may be water-rich, potentially requiring revision of our understanding of the abundances of asteroid types and the formation history of the asteroid belt.
Rather than analysing returned or recovered extraterrestrial materials, an alternative approach to studying the Solar System environment is to simulate both the types of materials likely (or predicted) to be present, and to then subject them to varying conditions typical of those their real counterparts may experience (high or low temperatures, exposure to different gases etc.) to see how they evolve or interact. This can then allow scientists to either make predictions on what materials might be present in different locales such as planetary surfaces, or used as ground truths with which to interpret astronomical observations or the laboratory characterisation measurements made on samples of recovered or returned matter. A team of researchers including Diamond principle beamline scientist Dr Stephen Thompson, studied the formation of salts on Europa using X-ray Powder Diffraction at the Long Duration Experiments facility on the I11 beamline. Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons and possess a huge saline ocean about 100 km deep beneath a 25 km ice crust. However, when salty water freezes, the dissolved salts are excluded from the solid ice and become concentrated into pockets of liquid brine, from which the salts eventually precipitate out as the temperature decreases further. For their experiment, the researchers recreated the ocean composition in the laboratory, and they induced a very slow freezing (less than 0.3°K per day for almost a year) to monitor the formation of salts. Under these conditions, they found that an unpredicted salt (a highly hydrated sodium-magnesium sulphate) was produced at low temperature, and that it was more and more abundant as the temperature lowered.
Interestingly, as Europa’s ocean gained its salinity from the leaching of elements from the rocky material at its core, that derived from the dust present at the moon’s formation in the early solar nebula, the similarity in composition of these materials across the galaxy means that the sodium-magnesium salt may well be present on other icy-ocean worlds and exoplanets. This discovery may have significant astrobiological implications, as brine pockets within the polar sea ice on Earth are home to a wide range of cold-loving microorganisms whose ecological habitat is controlled by the low temperature precipitation of salts. This ice-salt-water environment could even have played a role in the development of life, as many biomolecules have an increased stability at lower temperatures.
These examples are among the many experiments that have taken place at Diamond for studying space. Analysing materials from other planets and Solar System objects provides us not only with information about how those objects and the Solar System itself formed and evolved over time but provides us with a window to understanding the primitive history of our own planet, information that has largely been erased by the Earth’s more active geological processes.
As Dr Thompson says,
There is a real interest in this field of science as it addresses two fundamental questions of where do we come from? And is there life elsewhere?
He went on to add that;
From a technical point of view, this type of research can be very challenging, often involving tiny amounts of precious and rare samples that must be held under carefully controlled conditions. Cutting-edge research into exotic materials that originate from beyond Earth that seeks to answer fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our Solar System, its planets, and even the pre-biological origin of life itself, requires a world-leading facility such as Diamond and its range of advanced, specialist beamlines and techniques.
Dr Thompson and his colleagues Dr Sarah Day from I11 and Dr Liam Perera from the DIAD beamline have also established a Planetary Sciences research group and have already conducted several experiments on DIAD, using combined tomographic imaging and diffraction to investigate the evolution of salt minerals at low temperatures on icy bodies such as Enceladus. This moon of Saturn is known to have a subsurface ocean which although slowing leaking away into space has most of the chemical ingredients necessary for life, and likely hydrothermal vents releasing hot, biologically important mineral-rich water into its ocean. The group recently presented some of their preliminary results at the prestigious International Union of Crystallography general assembly in Melbourne, Australia, in August.
For further details about the Planetary Sciences research group, please contact Principal Beamline Scientist Stephen Thompson Stephen.email@example.com
Thompson, S. P. et al. Laboratory exploration of mineral precipitates from Europa's subsurface ocean. Journal of Applied Crystallography 54 1455-1479 (2021). DOI: 10.1107/S1600576721008554
Baker, D. R. et al. Sulfur and chlorine in nakhlite clinopyroxenes: Source region concentrations and magmatic evolution. Geochemica et Cosmochimica Acta 359 1-19 (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.gca.2023.08.007
Noguchi, T. et al. A dehydrated space-weathered skin cloaking the hydrated interior of Ryugu. Nature Astronomy 7 170–181 (2023) DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01841-6
King, A. J. et al. The alteration history of the Jbilet Winselwan CM carbonaceous chondrite: An analog for C-type asteroid sample return. Meteoritics & Planetary Science 54 521-543. (2018) DOI: 10.1111/maps.13224
Steele, A. et al. Organic synthesis associated with serpentinization and carbonation on early Mars. Science 375.6577: 172-177 (2022). DOI: 10.1126/science.abg7905
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