Theses Doctoral

Asteroid Compositions and Planet-Forming Environments: Insights from Spectral and Geochemical Characterization of Chondritic Meteorites

Gemma, Marina

The origin of the earliest solids in the solar system, preserved for 4.56 Ga in primitive chondritic meteorites, is poorly understood, in particular because of the lack of detailed chemical data on individual phases within these solids. Because chondrite constituents record the environmental conditions and local chemistry of the protoplanetary disk in which they were formed, examining their chemical composition across chondrite groups enhances our understanding of and provides quantitative constraints on the origin of the earliest solar system bodies, the precursors to our planets. This dissertation examines chondritic meteorites using (1) geochemical analysis of the major and trace element distributions within and among carbonaceous chondrite constituents to address chemical source reservoirs and formation mechanisms, and (2) visible near-infrared (VNIR) spectroscopy of ordinary chondrites under a variety of conditions to improve compositional interpretations of remotely sensed asteroids.

Chapter 1 presents a brief introduction to the field of meteoritics via an overview of meteorite types and the various contexts they preserve. Primitive chondritic meteorites and their components fossilize the chemical and physical conditions that existed at the time of their formation in the early solar system, whereas achondritic meteorites provide insight into the structure of planetary interiors. This chapter also reviews fundamentals of mineral condensation in the early solar system environment, and the implications of the presence (or lack) of these minerals in the components that comprise chondrites.

In Chapter 2 of this dissertation, I investigate the distribution of trace elements in the components of the carbonaceous Vigarano-type (CV) chondrite group to better reveal the solar system processes that led to the fundamental cosmochemical mechanisms of chondrule formation and chondrite accretion. While the major element and bulk chemical compositions of chondritic meteorites are well established, the distribution of trace elements amongst chondrite components and in the individual minerals within them is not well constrained. The geochemical behavior of trace elements enables them to reveal precursor characteristics, formation conditions, and processing histories of chondrite constituents. In determining the large-scale distribution of trace elements, in particular the rare earth elements (REE), across multiple meteorites in the CV chondrite group, I produced a statistically significant trace element dataset that complements existing major element and isotopic datasets. I observe variable REE patterns in individual mineral phases in chondrite components which combine to produce overall flat bulk REE patterns for each meteorite. This chemical evidence, which is necessary to constrain dynamical accretion mechanisms in astrophysical models of the early solar system, supports the idea of a single reservoir origin for these chondrites, and suggests that some chondrules are in chemical disequilibrium and have inherited CAI-like precursor material.

In Chapter 3, I evaluate common standardization techniques used for analysis of laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) data and assess the implications for high-precision elemental analyses. LA-ICP-MS has become popular in part due to its ability to measure low trace element abundances in small sample volumes while preserving petrographic context. The capacity for in-situ mineral-scale and sub-mineral scale analyses is particularly useful for diffusion studies or for assessing element partitioning between co-existing solids. Standardization techniques have been developed in order to obtain high-precision concentration data from LA-ICP-MS analyses.

Common practice dictates the use of reference material spot sizes similar or equal to the chosen spot sizes of the unknown samples under investigation. However, the effects of using reference material spot sizes for calibration that differ from sample spot sizes are not quantitatively constrained. In this chapter I evaluate the coupled effects of differences in ablation yield and of matching compositions between samples and reference materials (matrix matching), as well as the differences in calculated element abundance resulting from internal standard element choice. I show that element abundances derived from LA-ICP-MS analyses are heavily dependent on the chosen combination of measured element, internal standard element, unknown spot size, and reference spot size. Even varying just one of these parameters does not necessarily yield predictable effects on resulting data.

In Chapter 4, I explore the effects of both chemical and physical variables on laboratory infrared spectral analysis of well-characterized meteorite samples with the goal of better quantitatively analyzing asteroid remote sensing data in conjunction with returned extraterrestrial samples. Temperature and grain size are known to each have individual effects on the VNIR spectra of silicate and meteorite powders. Here, I examine the combined effects of physical variables (temperature, particle size) and chemical variables (petrologic type, metal fraction) on VNIR spectra of ordinary chondrite meteorite powders. I prepared six equilibrated (petrologic types 4-6) ordinary chondrite meteorite falls, spanning groups H, L, and LL, at a variety of particle sizes to capture the spectral diversity associated with asteroid regoliths dominated by various grain sizes.

VNIR spectra of the ordinary chondrite materials were measured under simulated asteroid surface conditions (~10-6 millibar, -100°C chamber temperature, and low intensity illumination) at a series of temperatures chosen to mimic near-Earth asteroid surfaces. Iused X-ray element maps of meteorite thick sections to calculate the exact mineral abundances for each meteorite, in order to characterize changes in spectral features due to variations in mineralogy. The VNIR spectra show minimal variation in both major orthosilicate absorption bands across the simulated near-Earth asteroid temperature regime. Spectral changes due to particle size are consistent across samples, with the smallest and largest grain sizes having the highest reflectance.

Unlike previous spectral investigations of ordinary chondrites, I retained the metal fraction in the meteorite powders instead of analyzing the silicate fraction only. In the measurements, I observe distinct offsets in spectral features when compared to analyses of purely silicate fractions. XRD analysis shows that the largest size fraction of nearly every sample contains relatively more metal, likely due to the retention of metal nuggets in the largest size fraction during sieving. The more petrologically pristine samples (e.g., LL4) from each ordinary chondrite group display relatively shallower band depths than their more petrologically altered counterparts (e.g., LL6). The band depths shift to higher wavelengths as temperature, grain size, and petrologic type increase. Spectral studies of meteorites combined with detailed petrologic analysis of the samples should greatly enhance interpretation of current and future planetary remote sensing data sets. Importantly, understanding the spectral contribution of the metal fraction will aid in upcoming investigations of metal-rich mission targets such as asteroid 16 Psyche.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Ebel, Denton S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 29, 2023