It’s not quite the asteroid that gave Wakanda its vibranium, but for geologists, it might be even better. A space rock found in Somalia has been found to contain at least two minerals only previously known to have been produced artificially, with a third still under investigation. Since these discoveries were made using a single 70-gram (2.5-ounce) sample, it’s quite possible we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the rock has to offer.
“Whenever you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rock, was different than what’s been found before,” said Professor Chris Herd of the University of Alberta in a statement.
Herd reported his findings to the University’s Space Exploration Symposium this month.
The presence of water and oxygen on Earth create more ways in which elements can come together to create minerals. As a result, the number we have found originating on Earth dwarfs those known to have formed in space. Nevertheless, meteorites maintain their capacity to surprise us, and the El Ali meteorite is certainly doing that.
Herd found two new minerals, which he called elaliite and elkinstantonite after the meteorite and Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton, respectively. Besides being vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University, Elkins-Tanton is principle investigator of the Psyche mission to explore the large metal-rich asteroid.
“Lindy has done a lot of work on how the cores of planets form, how these iron nickel cores form, and the closest analogue we have are iron meteorites," Herd said. “So it made sense to name a mineral after her and recognize her contributions to science.”
The El Ali meteorite is an Iron, IAB meteorite, of which more than 350 are known. Consequently, Herd was particularly surprised to see something unfamiliar when examining a slice of it.
Herd asked his colleague Dr Andrew Locock to see what was going on. “The very first day he did some analysis he said, ‘You’ve got at least two new minerals in there,” Herd said.
The fact both elaliite and elkinstantonite had been produced in laboratories meant Locock was able to verify their presence relatively easily. Artificial substances don’t have the same naming process as those found in nature, so Herd's names were accepted a month ago.
Locock has experience with identifying new minerals, but Herd said his expertise lies in working out the history of an asteroid based on its composition. Finding new minerals scrambles that, and it will take a while both to work out how the meteorite’s parent body formed, and why we haven’t seen these minerals elsewhere.
Humans have been putting meteorite material to use at least since Tutankhamun had a dagger forged from the iron/nickle/cobalt in one. Herd hopes elaliite, elkinstantonite, or other minerals found in the El Ali meteorite will eventually prove of practical value.
Although the Meteoritical Bulletin Database lists the 15 tonne El Ali meteorite as having been found in 2020, that is only when the wider world became aware of it. Locals told researchers the stone was known as “Nightfall” in the folklore of the Saar people, indicating its landing had been observed. It had been celebrated in songs, poems, and dances for at least five generations and used for knife sharpening. The meteorite is almost 90 percent iron and nickel and is among the largest ever found.
Despite Johnny Cash’s views on shoveling 16 tons, the meteorite minus some small samples taken for analysis has been moved to Mogadishu, and Herd reports it may have been sold to China. Considering the prices meteorites a thousandth of the size can fetch, it is unlikely that even with the costs, Somalia ended up deeper in debt as a result.