Tech & Science

Weird Crystal-Studded Meteorite Is 'Completely Different' to Any Other Found on Earth

Scientists say a weird, baseball-sized space rock studded with green crystals is “completely different” from any other known meteorite on Earth.

Thought to be some 4.6 billion years old, the space rock is the oldest igneous meteorite—formed when molten rock cools and solidifies—ever discovered, scientists reported in the journal Nature Communications.

6_8_NWA 11119 An artist's rendition of Northwest Africa (NWA) 11119 (far right bottom corner of illustration), which is the oldest igneous meteorite recorded. University of New Mexico

Some 4.6 billion years ago, an enormous cloud of dust and gas collapsed into a swirling disk around our bright, burgeoning sun. Eventually, objects like planets emerged amid the spinning mess and became the solar system we know today.

“This research is key to how the building blocks of planets formed early in the solar system,” said the University of New Mexico’s Carl Agee in a statement. “These igneous processes act like little blast furnaces that are melting rock and processing all of the solar system solids. Ultimately, this is how planets are forged.”

It wasn’t immediately clear that the rock was extraterrestrial because of its light color, the researchers told Live Science. But scientific analysis revealed the hunk, named Northwest Africa 11119, as it was discovered in the sand dunes of Mauritania, was alien in origin.

“Not only is this just an extremely unusual rock type, it's telling us that not all asteroids look the same. Some of them look almost like the crust of the Earth because they're so light colored and full of [silica],” Agee said. “These not only exist, but it occurred during one of the very first volcanic events to take place in the solar system.”

Agee—who had acquired the rock from a meteorite dealer—gave the specimen to doctoral student Poorna Srinivasan to examine. She was able to confirm the rock came from an extraterrestrial sourse somewhere in our solar system. “But we can't actually pinpoint it to a known body that has been viewed with a telescope,” Srinivasan said in the statement.

Although scientists don’t know exactly where it's from, they’ve linked it to two other meteorites found on Earth: Northwest Africa 7235 and Almahata Sitta. They think these rocks might all come from the same parent body.

But beyond this possible connection, the meteorite’s age and composition make it unlike anything they've examined before. “This rock...stands out as something completely different from any of the over 40,000 meteorites that have been found on Earth,” Srinivasan said.

Rocks like this, the scientists hope, will help broaden our understanding of the formation of the solar system. “Meteorites like this were the precursors to planet formation and represent a critical step in the evolution of rocky bodies in our solar system,” co-author and Arizona State University graduate student Daniel Dunlap said in the statement.