space diagram
Solar wind (white) magnetizes asteroid (red) in early solar system. (Photo credit: Michael Osadciw, UR)

In a paper published in Nature Communications Earth and Environment, researchers, including Alexander Krot at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), used paleomagnetic (Earth’s magnetic field in rocks, sediment or archeological materials) records to determine when carbonaceous chondrite asteroids, some of which are rich in water and organics, first arrived in the inner solar system.

The research helps inform scientists about the early origins of the solar system and why some planets, such as Earth, became habitable and were able to sustain conditions conducive for life, while other planets, such as Mars, did not. The research also gives scientists data that can be applied to the discovery of new exoplanets, planets that orbit stars outside of the solar system and the search for other habitable planets.

Solving a paradox using a meteorite in Mexico

Some meteorites are pieces of debris from outer space objects such as asteroids. After breaking apart from their “parent bodies,” these pieces are able to survive passing through the atmosphere and eventually hit the surface of a planet or moon.

Studying the magnetization of meteorites can give researchers a better idea of when the objects formed and where they were located early in the solar system relative to the Sun.

The Allende meteorite is the largest carbonaceous chondrite on Earth and contains pebble-sized objects—calcium-aluminum inclusions—that are thought to be the first solids formed in the solar system. New experiments by University of Rochester graduate student Tim O’Brien, the first author of the paper, found that magnetic signals in the meteorite were produced during metasomatic alteration experienced by the parent asteroid.

“The metasomatic alteration recorded by Allende resulted from water and carbon dioxide-rich fluid-rock interaction at about 300–400 degrees Celsius about 3 million–4 million years after formation of the solar system and is quite unique among carbonaceous chondrites,” said Krot.

Having solved this paradox, O’Brien was able to identify meteorites with other minerals that could faithfully record early solar system magnetizations.

Determining Jupiter’s role in asteroid migration

John Tarduno, co-author and lead professor at the University of Rochester’s magnetics group, combined this work with theoretical work and computer simulations. The team determined that solar winds draped around early solar system bodies and it was this solar wind that magnetized the bodies; and that the parent asteroids from which carbonaceous chondrite meteorites broke off arrived in the Asteroid Belt from the outer solar system about 4,562 million years ago, within the first five million years of solar system history.

The analyses and modeling offer more support for the idea that the inner and outer solar system asteroids (non-carbonaceous and carbonaceous, respectively) were separated by the gravitational forces of the giant planet Jupiter, whose subsequent migration then mixed the two asteroid groups.

“This early motion of carbonaceous chondrite asteroids sets the stage for further scattering of water-rich bodies—potentially to Earth—later in the development of the solar system, and it may be a pattern common to exoplanet systems,” said Tarduno.

For more see SOEST’s website.

–By Marcie Grabowski