20 December 2015

20 December: Meteorites and the origin of the solar system


Meteorites can help us decipher our origins. Today’s researcher is an expert on the early solar system, and has actually been stranded near where it is said that Santa lives, on the very real Meteorite Island.

Meteorites have lots to teach us about the origins of our solar system, which is precisely why Henning Haack of the Natural History Museum of Denmark is devoted to studying them.

His current research of the early solar system aims at digging up new information about its very origins. In other words, Henning Haack’s research might just help us understand why we are here.

Haack sat on the edge of his seat last July as the New Horizon space probe began transmitting data back from Pluto. For researchers trying to grasp the formation of our solar system, Pluto is anything but a dwarf.

“When you get to Pluto, you get the whole package – everything present in the solar system from day one is still out there,” explained Haack to videnskab.dk, a Danish science news site, last July.

Until now, knowledge of the solar system’s composition and the conditions that existed when it formed has come primarily from meteorites found upon the earth’s surface. But data from these meteorites is limited as the elements in them have been modified after their blazing traverse through the Earth’s atmosphere. However, these same elements abound in their unmodified states around Pluto.


While some elements might have been lost in the meteorites found on the Earth’s surface, these meteorites remain an important aspect of Henning Haacke’s hunt to understand the origins of our the solar system. Henning Haack is curator of the Danish meteor collection. Many meteorites of various types are found at the museum, each of which presents clues about our solar system. 

 “One of the meteorites that has always had a special place in my heart is the Maribo meteorite. It fell near the town of Maribo on January 17, 2009. The Maribo meteorite isn’t just the only Danish meteorite to have fallen while I have been curator of the meteorite collection, it is also happens to be the most interesting meteorite to have ever fallen in Denmark. The Maribo meteorite contains particles created more than 4.5673 billion years ago – nearly 50 million years before Earth came to be. And, the Maribo meteorite contains materials that have never been found in any other meteorite,” explains Henning Haack.

 “Another of the collection’s jewels is the Agpalilik meteor. Fifteen tons of it can be found in the museum courtyard. And a polished, etched 550 kg slice of it is on display in the solar system exhibit. It is the world’s largest meteorite slice. Agpalilik is an iron meteorite that was originally part of an asteroid’s metallic core. The asteroid was crushed when it collided with another asteroid 650 million years ago. The meteorite fell to earth a few thousand years ago in an area around Thule, Greenland, near Meteorite Island. In all, 58 tons of iron meteorite have been found and some of the fragments have played an important role for the Inuit, who used the metal to make tools.”

Stranded on Meteorite Island

Part of Henning Haack’s research involves hunting for Arctic meteorites. On one such expedition to Greenland, he was stranded by a storm together with a group of researchers while studying the use of iron meteorites by the Inuit.

 “We were on Meteorite Island to investigate the places where Inuit have used meteorites for a thousand years. There was nowhere to sleep on the ship, so we were let off at the settlement of Savissivik. The next morning, a storm blew in. We could see the ship rolling violently, while small icebergs came terrifyingly close. It didn’t take long until we saw them raise the anchor and disappear around the island. There we were, pondering when we would see them again – which turned out to be three days later. It wasn’t possible to land a dinghy on the coast, so we needed to cross the island and get down to a bay on the other side.”