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What the Oldest Meteorites Say about the Early Solar System

Microscopic analyses of chondrites, the oldest rocks in the solar system, are filling in details of what our neighborhood in space was like shortly before the planets formed

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I pity Astronomers. They can see the objects of their affection—stars, galaxies, quasars—only remotely: as images on computer screens or as light waves projected from unsympathetic spectrographs. Yet many of us who study planets and asteroids can caress pieces of our beloved celestial bodies and induce them to reveal their innermost secrets. When I was an undergraduate astronomy major, I spent many a cold night looking through telescopes at star clusters and nebulae, and I can testify that holding a fragment of an asteroid is more emotionally rewarding; it offers a tangible connection with what might otherwise seem distant and abstract.

The asteroidal fragments that fascinate me most are the chondrites. These meteorites, which constitute more than 80 percent of those observed to fall from space, derive their name from the chondrules virtually all of them contain—tiny beads of melted material, often smaller than a rice grain, that formed before asteroids took shape early in the solar system's history. When we examine thin slices from chondrites under a microscope, they become beautiful to behold, not unlike some of the paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and other abstract artists.

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