Anyone who has ever watched the night sky has probably seen at least a few shooting stars from time to time. These bits of stellar debris begin to burn as they are met with the friction of our atmosphere, becoming balls of colorful fire once they reach a distance of around 15 to 55 miles above our planet.
Meteors can possess a variety of colors, ranging from blue and green to bright yellow, pink, and red. But what actually causes these colors when we see meteors streaking through the sky?
The darker colors in the spectrum are generally the result of metals present within the meteor; the same is the case for yellowish hues that appear as they burn, although reddish colors are generally a result of the air around the meteor itself. The resulting combinations can result in quite a light show during peak times of the year when meteor showers occur.
We know, of course, that meteors contain a variety of metals and other minerals, including a few that are fairly rare here on Earth (more on that a bit later). However, one meteor that was recently discovered in Russia has actually yielded an entirely new kind of mineral, which some experts are rightly calling an “alien” material from space.
Dubbed ‘Uakitite,’ the mineral was found in an iron meteorite discovered in 2016 called Uakit, recovered from the Baunt Evenk district, Republic of Buryatia, in Russia. The discovery was formally acknowledged the following year on June 28, 2017 by the Meteorite Nomenclature Committee.
According to a paper published by the 81st Annual Meeting of The Meteoritical Society 2018, Kamacite is the main mineral found within the meteorite, although minor and accessory minerals include a cavalcade of seldom-discussed varieties such as schreibersite (rhabdite), nickelphosphide, taenite, plessite, cohenite, tetrataenite, daubreelite, kalininite, troilite, carlsbergite, sphalerite, among others.
The Uakitite was found in small amounts, and “was observed in small troilite-daubreelite inclusions.” The mineral is described as grayish in color, and reflecting a pinkish color under light. It is nearly as hard as diamond (possessing a 9-10 ration on the Mohs’ scale).
A variety of elements that are rarely seen here on Earth are commonly found in meteors. Examples of such rare-earth elements include iridium, platinum, neodymium, and many others, which have practical applications that include an array of industrial uses (magnets made of neodymium can be purchased, for instance, which are renowned for their strength).
When geologists find a prevalence of a particular rare-earth element along a widespread geological boundary, one thing that it may often indicate is an extraterrestrial impact that occurred during the period in history associated with the strata in question. The presence of a so-called “iridium anomaly” such as this was what helped physicist Luis Alvarez and his son, geologist Walter Alvarez, determine that an extraterrestrial impact occurred in the Cretaceous period, which is associated with the widespread extinction of the dinosaurs.
A similar controversial theory has been proposed for a platinum anomaly discovered at around 12,700 BCE, which coincides with a period of abrupt climate change in Paleoindian times known as the Younger Dryas.
While there are no “anomalies” present in relation to the Russian meteor discussed earlier, it is certainly a novel discovery to have found traces of an “alien” mineral within it. The discovery marks the first instance where, to our knowledge, the newly-dubbed Uakitite mineral has ever appeared on our world.