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Why Study Meteorites?

An artist concept of a distant solar system much like our own. From the viewpoint of the outer edge looking in towards a sun like star planets can be seen within a ring of debris. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech.

 

 

Every single person in the meteorite community has been confronted with a question that we all face at some point in our meteorite career. There is no escaping or evading this question and it comes in various forms; the question is “why are you so interested in meteorites?” Sometimes people say “they’re just rocks, why do you care?” which personally that one stings a little in my opinion. There’s a good possibility that this question may never go away. But maybe….just maybe, one day the public will see why we love this science and understand why meteorites are so important. Through education and outreach programs many of us try to put this question to rest. In this article my hope is that others will learn why studying meteorites is necessary for the human endeavor to survive. Meteoritics helps us understand how the solar system formed, how these rocks affect us in present times, and how they will aid humanity in colonizing space in the future.

 

 

Understand The Past

 

Science is the tool we use to make sense of the world; to understand the complex workings of nature. We need science to answer some of our biggest questions such as how did the universe begin, what triggered life to form, and what lies in the future for humanity. Can we survive this harsh and inhospitable universe? In order to ensure a future for ourselves we must first understand how our solar system came to be. Meteorites help us put the pieces of our past together. Every solar system started out as nothing more than a massive disk of very fine particles of dust and gas called a solar nebula. These fine particles moved at different velocities and they frequently hit one another. During this process these particles become electrically charged; now they can clump together and start to coalesce into rocky or icy bodies. Without this mechanism there would be no planets, no asteroids, no comets, and no life.

 

We understand the basic mechanics of solar system formation. Thanks to angular momentum, heat, electrical charges, gravity, and other factors an entire solar system can form. What scientists have not discovered as of yet is how nature creates a self sustaining planet capable of supporting life like the Earth. For example, we do not yet know how the Earth obtained so much water. Water is essential to life as we know it. Some hope that the study of meteorites will lead us to the answer. In a freshly fallen meteorite scientists have discovered trace amounts of water within the stone. The Murchison meteorite is one such a meteorite. The stone was seen to fall in Australia on September 28, 1969 and was immediately recovered. Scientists found not only amino acids but also trace amounts of water in the rock.

 

These findings suggest that meteorites delivered water to the planet after the formation process and the surface had time to cool and solidify. Perhaps the late heavy bombardment which occurred approximately 3.8 to 4 billion years ago deposited water to Earth. Maybe this bombardment period gave water that may have already existed on the planet a path to the surface through volcanism. There’s also the possibility that the late heavy bombardment had nothing to do with how the planet received this much water. The only way to discover the truth is to study each possibility, to go through a sort of process of elimination if you will. The study of meteorites, the leftover matter from the formation of the solar system, may give us the answer.

 

 

In Present Times

 

Ok so meteorites play an important part in understanding solar system formation but how does studying these rocks help humanity today? They couldn’t be that necessary that they need so much attention for present times right? Wrong! They are still just as important, if not more important than the other branches of study in astronomy for one huge factor….impact events. Our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon, shows us just how terrifying impacts can be. Billions of years of bombardment has left our moon riddled with craters. Asteroid impacts have occurred on Earth as well and these strikes will happen again, it’s only a matter of time. Look up Chelyabinsk meteor on YouTube and see for yourself just how big of a risk impacts pose on our civilization.

 

 

This photo shows the massive smoke trail from the Chelyabinsk event that was left behind by the house sized asteroid after tearing through Earth’s atmosphere. Taken about 125 miles away and a minute after the event. Photo by Alex Alishevskikh via NASA.gov.

 

 

The citizens of Chelyabinsk were extremely lucky that the meteoroid was composed of stone and not iron otherwise that event could have turned out much worse. That was a warning from the solar system, we need to study meteorites in order to protect ourselves from a deadly asteroid impact. This is where meteorite hunting and fireball chasing becomes so essential to science. After a fireball occurs that may have potentially dropped freshly fallen space rocks some hunters flock to the scene. If they find pieces of the object most of them donate some of the material to scientists for classification and study. In order to divert a potential deadly strike we must understand the composition of asteroids. This is the only natural disaster that we are capable of preventing with our current technology. But time is of the essence, we better get to work.

 

 

Guides To The Future

 

Meteorites help us understand the past and they give us motivation to protect ourselves from impacts in current times. Both are very important but some people may still ask why. What’s the point in any of these studies and efforts? One day humanity will be forced to leave planet Earth and find a new home. Nothing in this universe lasts forever and if we want the human race to continue then we must become a space-faring society. Meteorites will play a huge role in humanity learning how to survive and thrive in the harshness of space. These extraterrestrial rocks offer us a tiny glimpse of what resources are available to harvest out in the asteroid belt, where most meteorites originate. Mining asteroids is the key to our future.

 

Through studying the makeup of meteorites we have discovered water, metals, gases, amino acids, and many other resources. Through ground based and space based telescopes scientists have observed asteroids and their compositions using spectroscopy. We know that we can extract iron for building materials, salts, water for consumption and growing food, carbon, helium, hydrogen for fuel, and many other elements. By harvesting resources in the asteroid belt humanity can maintain colonies on the Moon, Mars, and perhaps even the dwarf planet Ceres and beyond. Yes these bodies have resources of their own that we can extract but they will be depleted eventually. By tapping into the resources in asteroids we can remain an interplanetary species. The more we study meteorites, the more knowledge we are armed with to make colonizing space much easier and a reality.

 

One day the sun will make the Earth inhospitable to life as its energy output increases and the planet will start to heat up. One day the sun will die, swelling into a red giant star and engulf the inner planets. We need to leave the entire solar system well before this comes to pass. The future of our species depends on us and what we do now. The next generation needs every bit of information that we can acquire and every advanced technology that we can conjure to give them their best chance possible. We must learn how to colonize other planets and moons. Meteorites will help us get there. They reveal where we have come from and more importantly where we are going…let’s boldly go.

 

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