Meteorite flies into Museum

20 June 2008

A rare meteorite that could reveal the secrets of the birth of the solar system jetted in to the Natural History Museum's collections today.

British Airways gave the satsuma-sized rock, called Ivuna, star treatment during its transfer from a private collection in the USA.

The Ivuna meteorite is an extremely rare specimen.

The Ivuna meteorite is an extremely rare specimen.

'Ivuna is a real-life time capsule that means we can look at the very first steps of how our solar system formed,' said Dr Caroline Smith, meteorite curator at the Museum. 'We hold one of the most comprehensive meteorite collections in the world, yet Ivuna has been a missing piece in the jigsaw.'

Similar to the sun

Ivuna is an extremely rare kind of meteorite. Its chemical make-up matches that of the sun, and it is considered to represent the raw materials from which the solar system formed.

Only 9 out of the approximate 35,000 meteorites (0.03%) known to science have this solar composition. Ivuna is arguably the best example and is in optimum condition having been kept in a nitrogen atmosphere for the past 25 years.

Fell in Tanzania

The Ivuna meteorite fell to Earth in Tanzania in 1938 as one stone weighing 705g.  Most samples of the meteorite are held in private collections or by the Tanzanian government, but an approximately 200g specimen has recently become available.

This new acquisition for the Museum means the UK now holds the largest sample of the meteorite in any public collection anywhere in the world.

BA flight of the meteorite
Dr Caroline Smith, meteorite expert, holds the Ivuna meteorite.

Dr Caroline Smith, meteorite expert, holds the Ivuna meteorite.

Captain Nick Grandy, pilot from the British Airways flight said, 'We have been lucky enough to fly many strange and wonderful objects on BA flights. But this is the first time I've flown a piece of space history in the cabin.'

'We are honoured to have the Ivuna meteorite as our oldest, most widely travelled customer and are proud to be bringing such an item of scientific importance to the UK.'

The Ivuna flight is part of a long-term partnership with British Airways, which gives free flights to Museum scientists enabling them to carry out important fieldwork around the world.

Building blocks for life

Ivuna could help to find out whether the chemical building blocks for life came from the stars. Important components of early genetic material, the amino acids b-alanine and glycine, were found in Ivuna in a 2001 study. And last week scientists at Imperial College confirmed that a meteorite called Murchison contains extra-terrestrial molecules that are the precursors to DNA and RNA.

'If we can better understand the complex processes that occurred in our solar system over 4.5 billion years ago, we can apply this to other stellar systems where planets are forming today,' says Dr Smith.

Coming to future Museum gallery

In addition to being used for research, Ivuna will be a star specimen in a new meteorites gallery, which the Museum is planning for the near future.

Museum's meteorite collection

The Museum's collection of more than 1,880 meteorites includes fragments of two others that have solar composition. This includes 700g of Orgueil, which fell in 1864, but is not suitable for many scientific investigations as it has been contaminated while on Earth.

What are meteorites?

Most meteorites found on Earth are believed to be fragments of asteroids - ancient rocks that formed during the creation of the solar system about 4.56 billion years ago.

Each year about 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes of extraterrestrial material hits the Earth, mostly as dust the size of grains of sand. About 1,000 meteorites land every year ranging from the size of a football to the size of a washing machine.

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