Mr Andy Swain
The University of Manchester
Scientists from The University of Manchester have found traces of sea water in a meteorite that fell in Morocco in 1998. This discovery shows that the necessary conditions for life in the Universe may have existed much earlier than previously believed.
The team found salt crystals containing pockets of brine within the “Zag” meteorite, which fell in Morocco in 1998. Using radioisotope dating, the Manchester team, working with a colleague at the Natural History Museum, determined that the salt crystals formed within two million years of the solar system’s birth.
If this age is correct, this would mean that the dust, gas and ice swirling around the new-born sun clumped together into rocky fragments far more quickly than researchers have assumed. These fragments were the parent bodies for primitive meteorites and the essential building blocks for asteroids and planets.
In the scenario proposed by Dr James Whitby of the Department of Earth Sciences, and his colleagues, the parent body for the “Zag” meteorite formed rapidly into a rocky mass containing water and radioactive isotopes. The isotopes’ decay generated enough heat to melt any ice within the rock, and soon caused the liquid to evaporate altogether. The salt crystals (mainly sodium chloride) formed during the evaporation process, similar to the way halite forms when sea water evaporates here on Earth.
In the report of the study in the journal “Science”, the research team proposed that the salt crystals grew very quickly on a newly formed asteroid that had just been formed by the collision of smaller particles. About 300 million years later, another large impact smashed the loose fragments together into a more solid conglomerate, a piece of which became the Zag meteorite.
The presence of liquid water on the meteorite has important implications for understanding the geology of moons and planets with large amounts of heat in their interiors. Volcanic activity is closely linked with the availability of water, which plays a major role in the formation of magma.
Notes for Editors For further information, please contact Dr James Whitby, Department of Earth Sciences, on 0161-275 3842, or Andy Swain, International and Public Relations Office, on 0161-275 2018.