4.6-billion-year-old space rock sheds light on early cosmos

The Erg Chech 002 meteorite chunk originated during the birth of the Solar System.
Chris Young
The Erg Chech 002 specimen.
The Erg Chech 002 specimen.

Yuri Amelin 

In May 2020, a team of meteor hunters found a chunk of meteorite, now called Erg Chech 002, in Algeria's Erg Chech region of the Sahara Desert.

Initial analysis showed that it is approximately 4.6 billion years old, meaning it was formed during the first million years of our solar system. As such, it is the oldest known meteor of volcanic origin.

Now, scientists have investigated the space rock in more detail, gleaning information about the early evolution of our solar system. They detailed their findings in a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

Analyzing an ancient space rock

The new analysis, which builds on previously published data, shows that Aluminium-26 (26Al), a radioactive isotope present within the meteorite when it formed, was spread unevenly throughout the Solar System.

26AI was a major heat source for early planetary melting and, therefore, played a vital role in the early evolution of our solar system.

As Erg Chech 002 is one of the oldest stony meteorites ever found, it allowed the scientists behind the analysis to explore the distribution of 26AI during the early period of the Solar System.

According to a press statement from the team behind the analysis, the new findings "increase our understanding of the early Solar System and may improve the accuracy of determining the ages of very old meteorites."

Determining whether 26AI is evenly distributed throughout the early Solar System is essential as it could help determine the ages of meteorites and help us better understand the early evolution of the Solar System and Earth.

4.6-billion-year-old space rock sheds light on early cosmos
The Erg Chech 002 specimen measures approximately 20 millimetres in length.

For the new analysis, Evgenii Krestianinov from the Australian National University and colleagues analyzed Erg Chech 002 and determined that its lead-isotopic age is roughly 4.566 billion years old.

They then compared their finding to existing data from other ancient meteorites that crystallized from melts. The statement explains that "the authors demonstrated that 26Al had an uneven distribution within the early Solar Nebula, likely associated with the late infall of stellar materials with freshly synthesized radionuclides."

Krestianinov and colleagues believe that "meteorite chronology studies should be cautious and take a generalized approach for dating with short-lived isotopes that account for their uneven distribution to improve the accuracy and reliability of determining the ages of meteorites and planetary materials."

Erg Chech 002 originated on an ancient protoplanet

In a study conducted by a team from France's Brest University in 2021, scientists found that Erg Chech 002's "parent body" could have measured approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) across. They also found that the meteorite is volcanic in origin, meaning it was part of the crust of a protoplanet.

There are 43 officially documented fragments of the Erg Chech meteorite. In an interview with AFP in 2021, Jean-Alix Barrat, a geochemist at France's Brest University and author on the 2021 paper, explained that there are "probably about a hundred" fragments still in the ground. The largest of the fragments are roughly "as big as a fist".

The Erg Chech 002 chunk is estimated to have been lying in the sands of the Saharah for approximately 100 years before it was discovered, meaning there are likely many other meteorite fragments hidden in plain sight, waiting to be found.

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