Heaven on Earth: Cosmic Particles and Extraterrestrial Rocks Reveal Our Beginnings [Slide Show]
NASA's beautiful collection of astromaterials is meticulously collected, catalogued and preserved for researchers to delve into the origins of our planet and the solar system
PRIMORDIAL PARTICLES: This thin section shows the meteorite La Paz Ice Field 02228, found in Antarctica in 2002. It is a carbonaceous chondrite, a rock formed from dust and small grains only present in the early solar system. The purple and blue circles are cross-sections of chondrules, originally a molten or partially molten droplet formed at high temperatures in the solar nebula. Chondrules are one of the oldest solids in the solar system.
IN THE LAB: These researchers, suited to prevent sample contamination, are in a sample laboratory where scientists store and analyze solar wind particles collected during the Genesis spacecraft mission.
PRECIOUS INSTRUMENT: A researcher examines one of the collection arrays before it was attached to the Genesis spacecraft. The mission collected particles from solar wind. The hexagonal wafers are coated with thin layers of materials like silicon, geranium and gold-on-sapphire.
DELICATE WORK: A scientist carefully handles the Miller Range 07001 meteorite. Analysis reveals it has the same infrared spectrum as the asteroid Vesta, and contains the minerals pyroxene, olivine and chromite, which could have originated at the birth of the solar system, 4.56 billion years ago.
COSMIC DUST: This interplanetary dust particle probably came from a comet before reaching Earth's upper stratosphere. One of NASA's high-flying aircraft collected the falling particle before it mixed with terrestrial dust.
COMET TRAIL: Dust from the Comet Wild 2 streaked through aerogel, a low-density silica-based material, on board the Stardust space probe, leaving this track. The Stardust mission was the first to collect and return cosmic dust and samples from a comet's tail. Magnified photographs of grains recovered from the track are inset in this image.
ALIEN CRYSTALS: This image may look like a stained-glass window, but it is actually a thin section of the Martian meteorite Miller Range 03346 taken in cross-polarized light. Large crystals of clinopyroxene, a mineral often found in volcanic rocks, are surrounded by tiny shards of glass that have melted and recrystallized. The rock was likely formed in a shallow magma chamber on Mars about 1.3 billion years ago.
A WHIFF OF MARS: Elephant Moraine A79001 is a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica's Elephant Moraine Ice Field in 1980. Black spheres embedded in the gray basaltic rack are capsules of glass containing trapped gas from the Martian atmosphere. Studies of noble gases and nitrogen trapped in these pockets matched the atmospheric composition measured by the NASA Viking mission in 1976.
MOON FALLEN TO EARTH: The dark glitter of a lunar meteorite stands out against the snow of Antarctica. Miller Range 05035 is a piece of the moon. Scientists analyzed the rock's age and composition and determined that it was ejected from the moon recently because of its old age—3.8 billion years—and oxygen isotope signature that is identical to Apollo samples.
COURTESY OF R. P. HARVEY AND THE ANTARCTIC SEARCH FOR METEORITES PROGRAM
MOON ROCK: The chalky, slightly crumbled piece of rock is a sample of ancient lunar crust. The device behind the rock shows the sample number and a scale. The cube roughly shows the rock's orientation on the lunar surface—the side facing the camera was pointed north and the top of the rock was pointed up. The turntable lets scientists match the rock's orientation in the lab with shadow directions from its pictures on the moon's surface.
MOONWALK: While standing on the surface of the moon, Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean holds a lunar soil sample in a Special Environmental Sample Container. Fellow astronaut Pete Conrad, Jr., is reflected in Bean's helmet visor.