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Tuesday, 5 September, 2000, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Meteorite records early Solar System
Lab Purdue News Service
The meteorite is being investigated at several labs
A very rare meteorite that fell to Earth in Canada could reveal new clues about the origins of the Solar System and even life on Earth.

Researchers believe the 4.5 billion-year-old rock is the first sample of its kind to be recovered.

Known as the Tagish Lake meteorite, the rock landed on ice in a remote area between Atlin, British Columbia, and Carcross, Yukon Territory, in January.

An analysis of 45 chemical elements in the meteorite, carried out by experts at Purdue University, Indiana, US, suggests the rock contains material that has not been altered since it came together just as the Solar System was forming.

"This meteorite is unique," said Michael Lipschutz, Professor of Chemistry at the university. "The Tagish Lake meteorite is a sample of the pre-solar nebula, out of which the planets formed. We have never before had a sample of this material."

Lucky find

The meteorite was found in the wilds of north western Canada by a nearby resident, Jim Brook, who collected the fragments from the icy lake using rubber gloves.

"I was watching closely for meteorites and suspected their identity as soon as I saw them, although I had been fooled several times by wolf droppings," is how Mr Brook described his discovery.

"It was obvious what they were as soon as I picked one up, because rocks aren't found on the ice, and I could see the outer melted crust. I was very happy and excited."

Mr Brook kept the fragments frozen to prevent contamination or degradation.

Since then researchers, working with Nasa, have made several trips to the area to collect further samples of the meteorite and to map where they fell.

Oxygen isotopes

Now, chemical analysis of one of the fragments has revealed that it belongs to a rare classification known as the carbonaceous chondrites - primitive, carbon-rich meteorites that contain organic compounds such as amino acids.

According to Professor Lipschutz, the pattern of oxygen isotopes in the Tagish Lake meteorite reveals its early origin.

Because the rock fell into ice, it is considered one of the best-preserved samples from our early Solar System, and, unlike many of the meteorites recovered on Earth, has not undergone substantial heating sometime in its history.

Dr Ian Lyon from the department of Earth Sciences at the University of Manchester, UK, said it was a very significant discovery.

"It is the only meteorite in all the collections that has never been warmed up to room temperature," he told BBC News Online.

Primitive life

The fact that the sample was kept cold means scientists have a chance of looking for primitive organic materials that would normally be destroyed by heating, and perhaps might be related to rudimentary lifeforms.

"Nobody is suggesting that there are primitive lifeforms on this meteorite," said Dr Lyon.

"But in order to understand the sort of organic materials that were present in the very early Solar System, we need to understand the processes that might have built up these very primitive organic materials."

Some scientists believe life on Earth originated from outer space. Further analysis of the Tagish Lake meteorite could reveal clues about whether rudimentary forms of life might have come from beyond our planet, perhaps brought to Earth on a meteorite.

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