Oldest Carbonates in the Solar System – Heidelberg Ion Probe Used to Date Flensburg Meteorite

Flensburg Meteorite With Black Fusion Crust

Flensburg meteorite with black fusion crust: Parts of the fusion crust were lost during the flight through the atmosphere. The small fragment, weighing 24,5 grams, is about 4.5 billion years old. Credit: A. Bischoff / M. Patzek, University of Münster

A meteorite that fell in northern Germany in 2019 contains carbonates which are among the oldest in the solar system; it also evidences the earliest presence of liquid water on a minor planet. The high-resolution Ion Probe – a research instrument at the Institute of Earth Sciences at Heidelberg University – provided the measurements. The investigation by the Cosmochemistry Research Group led by Prof. Dr. Mario Trieloff was part of a consortium study coordinated by the University of Münster with participating scientists from Europe, Australia, and the USA.

Carbonates are ubiquitous rocks on Earth. They can be found in the mountain ranges of the Dolomites, the chalk cliffs on the island of Rügen, and in the coral reefs of the oceans. They remove large amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2 from the atmosphere, making them relevant for the climate. Unlike the Earth of today, there were no carbonate rocks during the formation of primordial Earth, when our planet was blazing hot.

The meteorite that fell to Earth in September 2019, dubbed the Flensburg meteorite for where it was found, is classified as a carbonaceous chondrite, a very unusual and rare form of meteorite. According to Prof. Dr. Addi Bischoff and Dr. Markus Patzek from the University of Münster, the find is quite unique: “In the early Solar System, the rock was extensively exposed to a watery fluid and thus formed water-bearing silicates and carbonates.” The researchers from the Institute for Planetology view the meteorite as a possible building block that may have delivered water to the planet Earth early on.

The Flensburg meteorite was dated at Heidelberg University using the ion probe. “Such measurements are extraordinarily difficult and challenging, because the carbonate grains in the rock are extremely small. Further, the isotopic measurements must be very precise, taken within a very tight range of just a few micrometers in diameter – thinner than a human hair,” explains Thomas Ludwig of the Institute of Earth Sciences. The dating method is based on the rates of decay of a naturally occurring isotope – the decay of the short-lived radionuclide 53Mn, which was still active in the early Solar System.

“Using this method, the most precise age determinations thus far indicated that the parent asteroid of the Flensburg meteorite and the carbonates formed only three million years after the formation of the first solid bodies in the Solar System,” explains Prof. Trieloff. The carbonates are therefore more than a million years older than comparable carbonates in other types of carbonaceous chondrites. Besides the age determinations based on the radionuclide 53Mn, the tiny carbonate grains were also examined for their carbon and oxygen isotope composition with the aid of the Heidelberg Ion Probe. The carbonates apparently precipitated out of a relatively hot fluid shortly after the formation and heating of the parent asteroid. “They therefore evidence the earliest known presence of liquid water on a planetary body in the early Solar System,” states the cosmochemist.

In all, 41 researchers from 21 institutions in Germany, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Great Britain, the USA, and Australia contributed to the study, which was published in the journal “Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta”. Work at the University of Münster was carried out under the auspices of the Transregional Collaborative Research Centre “Late Accretion Onto Terrestrial Planets” (CRC TRR 170). The research at Heidelberg University was funded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation. Ruperto Carola acquired the ion probe with funding from the German Research Foundation.

Reference: “The old, unique C1 chondrite Flensburg – Insight into the first processes of aqueous alteration, brecciation, and the diversity of water-bearing parent bodies and lithologies” by Addi Bischoff, Conel M. O’D.Alexander, Jean-Alix Barrat, Christoph Burkhardt, Henner Busemann, Detlev Degering, Tommaso Di Rocco, Meike Fischer, Thomas Fockenberg, Dionysis I. Foustoukos, Jérôme Gattacceca, Jose R. A. Godinho, Dennis Harries, Dieter Heinlein, Jan L. Hellmann, Norbert Hertkorn, Anja Holm, A. J. Timothy Jull, Imene Kerraouch, Ashley J. King, Thorsten Kleine, Dominik Koll, Johannes Lachner, Thomas Ludwig, Silke Merchel, Cornelia A. K. Mertens, Précillia Morino, Wladimir Neumann, Andreas Pack, Markus Patzek, Stefan Pavetich, Maximilian P. Reitze, Miriam Rüfenacht, Georg Rugel, Charlotte Schmidt, Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, Maria Schönbächler, Mario Trieloff, Anton Wallner, Karl Wimmer and Elias Wölfer, 24 October 2020, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.
DOI: 10.1016/j.gca.2020.10.014

6 Comments on "Oldest Carbonates in the Solar System – Heidelberg Ion Probe Used to Date Flensburg Meteorite"

  1. Why is the Earth not cover in Moon meteors? And why is the Moon not host to countless Earth rocks. Even biological samples frozen since the dinosaur killer ripped a huge hole in the earth. No one? Silence. There’s a free grant. Unless something fishy is going on.

    • The “something fishy” that you are so concerned about is weathering and erosion. Earth has a thick, active and humid atmosphere that, over time, erodes all but the largest and most recent impact craters. It also has plate tectonics that recycle the crust back into the mantle. These natural forces conspire to remove the most ancient impact craters, while anything that hits the Moon leaves a mark that endures for geological ages. This happens on the Moon because it has neither atmosphere, weather nor plate tectonics.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | February 1, 2021 at 2:24 pm | Reply

      Good questions, sadly tarnished by a conspiracy theory.

      – Earth hosting lunar material

      This side is in principle easy to understand – weathering as mentioned, and also the problem that Earth and Moon has so similar composition as seen in the Apollo samples. Moon is itself the remnant of a giant impact ejection event, as you may know. But as it happens we have examples of Moon meteorites

      “Most lunar meteorites are launched from the Moon by impacts making lunar craters of a few kilometers in diameter or less.[6] No source crater of lunar meteorites has been positively identified, although there is speculation that the highly anomalous lunar meteorite Sayh al Uhaymir 169 derives from the Lalande impact crater on the lunar nearside.[7][8]

      Cosmic-ray exposure history established with noble-gas measurements have shown that all lunar meteorites were ejected from the Moon in the past 20 million years. Most left the Moon in the past 100,000 years. After leaving the Moon, most lunar meteoroids go into orbit around Earth and eventually succumb to Earth’s gravity. Some meteoroids ejected from the Moon get launched into orbits around the Sun. These meteoroids remain in space longer, but eventually intersect the Earth’s orbit and land.”

      [“Lunar meteorite” @ Wikipedia]

      Seems we have a complete account – they will land on Earth, whether or not we see them.

      – Moon hosting earth material
      The largest problem is the discovery of surface impact gardening. In additions we have seen that all of Moon’s crust has been pulverized by billions of years of impacts.

      “Impact gardening is the process by which impact events stir the outermost crusts of moons and other celestial objects with no atmospheres. In the particular case of the Moon, this is more often known as lunar gardening. Planetary bodies lacking an atmosphere will generally also lack any erosional processes, with the possible exception of volcanism, and as a result impact debris accumulates at the object’s surface as a rough “soil,” commonly referred to as regolith. Subsequent impacts, especially by micrometeorites, stir and mix this soil. It had long been estimated that the top centimeter of the lunar surface is overturned every 10 million years.[1] However a 2016 analysis by the LRO satellite of impact ejecta coverage puts the figure closer to 80,000 years.”

      [“Impact gardening” @ Wikipedia]

      “Now scientists at MIT, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and elsewhere have found evidence that, beneath its surface, the moon’s crust is almost completely pulverized. The finding suggests that, in its first billion years, the moon — and probably other planets like Earth — may have endured much more fracturing from massive impacts than previously thought.”

      [“GRAIL reveals a battered lunar history” @ MIT News]

      This is a topic I like to visit, since finding early Earth ejecta would sample it despite later weathering.

      Mind that it is much harder to get ejecta out of the atmosphere covered massive Earth, you need an impactor large enough to push an air column corridor and still hit with hypervelocity. I.e. it should hit without braking all the way down from the typical relative orbital velocity of 30 – 50 km/s under the 2-3 km/s that generates sound waves instead of shock waves in the crust and so dissipate energy instead of spallating away crust. Preferably you would like to have the ejecta above the escape velocity of ~10 km/s. But if you do that you are guaranteed that 2-5 % of the ejecta will take the air corridor back to space.

      So we would like to find Earth material on the Moon. Turns out we have done that too, albeit we needed modern analysis methods to see it – the likeness problem.

      “Lunar Sample 14321, better known as “Big Bertha”, is a lunar sample containing an embedded Earth-origin meteorite collected on the 1971 Apollo 14 mission. It was found in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon, and the embedded meteorite portion is the oldest known Earth rock. At 8.998 kg (19.837 lb) this breccia rock is the third largest Moon sample returned during the Apollo program, behind Big Muley and Great Scott.”

      “In January 2019 research showed that a fragment (clast) embedded in Big Bertha has numerous characteristics that make it very likely to be a terrestrial (Earth) meteorite. Granite and quartz, which are commonly found on Earth but very rare to find on the Moon, were confirmed to exist in this fragment. To find the sample’s age, the research team from Curtin University looked at bits of the mineral zircon embedded in its structure. “By determining the age of zircon found in the sample, we were able to pinpoint the age of the host rock at about four billion years old, making it similar to the oldest rocks on Earth,” researcher Alexander Nemchin said, adding that “the chemistry of the zircon in this sample is very different from that of every other zircon grain ever analyzed in lunar samples, and remarkably similar to that of zircons found on Earth.” This means that Big Bertha is both the first discovered terrestrial meteorite and the oldest known Earth rock.[4][5]”

      [“Big Bertha (lunar sample)” @ Wikipedia]

  2. You asked, “Why is the Earth not cover in Moon meteors?” What makes you assume it isn’t? The bombardment phases of the moon would have produced moon meteors. However, on Earth, abundant oxygen and water results in weathering and mechanical reduction of all rocks, and subduction of continental plates results in melting and assimilation.

    Chondrites are difficult to identify in the field because they look like terrestrial silicates, especially after weathering has removed the fusion crust. You have probably walked past meteorites and not recognized them.

  3. I found meteorite a few weeks ago that had gone through a skylight at a property I work at. I took it home. It is a black stone,and has a little magnetic energy. It,s more of a space boulder, weighs in at 13.8lbs. It seems to be either lunar basalt or could be Martian.Trying to get it on the certified on the Meteor Registry.All the Museums and Planetariums are closed so I,m not getting any responses.

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