Planet formation processes revealed by meteorites

Day, JMD.  2015.  Planet formation processes revealed by meteorites. Geology Today. 31(1):12-20.


The history of the solar system is locked within the planets, asteroids and other objects that orbit the Sun. While remote observations of these celestial bodies are essential for understanding planetary processes, much of the geological and geochemical information regarding solar system heritage comes directly from the study of rocks and other materials originating from them. The diversity of materials available for study from planetary bodies largely comes from meteorites; fragments of rock that fall through Earth’s atmosphere after impact-extraction from their parent planet or asteroid. These extra-terrestrial objects are fundamental scientific materials, providing information on past conditions within planets, and on their surfaces, and revealing the timing of key events that affected a planet’s evolution. Meteorites can be sub-divided into four main groups: (1) chondrites, which are unmelted and variably metamorphosed ‘cosmic sediments’ composed of particles that made up the early solar nebula; (2) achondrites, which represent predominantly silicate materials from asteroids and planets that have partially to fully melted, from a broadly chondritic initial composition; (3) iron meteorites, which represent Fe-Ni samples from the cores of asteroids and planetesimals; and (4) stony-iron meteorites such as pallasites and mesosiderites, which are mixtures of metal and dominantly basaltic materials. Meteorite studies are rapidly expanding our understanding of how the solar system formed and when and how key events such as planetary accretion and differentiation occurred. Together with a burgeoning collection of classified meteorites, these scientific advances herald an unprecedented period of further scientific challenges and discoveries, an exciting prospect for understanding our origins.