Image credit: Natural History Museum
Dr Caroline Smith holding the precious fragment of Tissint meteorite
The Natural History Museum in London has acquired the largest single piece of a rare meteorite with the support of a private donor. The space rock could provide a unique insight into the Red Planet’s history.
The fragment is part of the Tissint meteorite, which was spotted as it fell in southern Morocco in July 2011. Weighing 1.1kg, it’s about as big as a paperback book – and one and a half times the size of the museum’s previous largest meteorite.
Martian meteorites are an exciting find. Of the 41,000 known meteorites, only 61 hail from the Red Planet and just five, Tissint included, have been witnessed falling.
They’re also popular research objects as they allow scientists to perform tests that are beyond the abilities of robotic missions such as the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. However, contamination is a problem. The more time that passes before a meteorite is recovered, the more likely that it will be contaminated by matter from Earth – moisture, bacteria and so on.
Luckily, Tissint was picked up quickly. Dr Caroline Smith, the museum’s meteorite curator, believes Tissint is the most important meteorite to have fallen in the past 100 years.
“Tissint fell in a dry area, was picked up soon after it fell and has absolutely minimal contamination,” said Smith. “It is as if it has just been blasted off Mars.”
Dr David Parker, the UK Space Agency’s director of science, technology and exploration, also emphasised the acquisition’s significance. “The fact that the UK now holds the largest sample of the Tissint meteorite in any public collection in the world is a great opportunity for UK planetary researchers,” he said.