Asteroids, comets, and meteorites


The remote follow up of asteroids and comets in different band-pass filters using telescopes allows identifying the surface composition of these fascinating objects, but the meteorites arrived to Earth are free samples delivered from many of them. The study of these primitive materials, authentic building blocks of planets, is of relevance to date and establish the different steps in planetary evolution. By studying primitive meteorites, particularly the so-called chondrites, we gain insight to promote the future exploration and exploitation of undifferentiated asteroids that are not only authentic fossils of creation, but also rich in natural resources: metals, rare Earths, and even precious water. In our laboratories we can also infer physico-chemical properties about the nature of these hazardous bodies that have amazing mechanical and catalytic properties, to transform what is supposed to be a challenge in scientific, technological and economic opportunity. Millions of asteroids remain to be explored and exploited, and hundreds of them are having close approaches to Earth much closer than the distance to the Moon.
Chondritic asteroids, particularly those of carbonaceous nature, are considered the most representative samples of the starting composition of the Sun and the gaseous nebula from which planets formed. These bodies can be considered fossils to understand solar system evolution because they are sampling the protoplanetary disk forming materials, exhibiting essential chemical and isotopic fingerprints essential to understand the astrophysical environment in which our planetary system formed. Our ICE group, with experience in laboratory analysis, and characterization of meteorites and of other sample-returned materials is contributing to obtain new answers on the role of minor bodies in the terrestrial enrichment in volatiles and organics previous to the appearance of life in Earth.
In 1976 the first Apollo missions collected lunar rocks that provided amazing information about the early history and common origin of the Earth and Moon system. Just thirty years later the recovery of thousands of micron-sized particles from comet 81P/Wild 2 by NASA Stardust sample return mission, in which we participated forming part of the Preliminary Examination Team, opened a new age in planetary exploration where distant and pristine bodies are brought to our terrestrial laboratories for accurate in situ laboratory studies. Stardust mission exemplifies a new concept of moderate cost missions that offers a huge scientific output, like the expected OSIRIS-REx of NASA and Hayabusa 2 of JAXA. This type of missions will become common during the XXI century, when new materials from distant primitive bodies will be collected all along the solar system. This new age of discovery will require developing new techniques in state-of-the-art instruments and facilities where these materials will offer us unique information on the early solar system formation stages.
The research activity of our group is focused in four different aspects, namely 1) the recovery and characterization of new meteorites to study their physico-chemical properties and assess their parent bodies, 2) the study of aqueous alteration in meteorites to infer the pathways in which water arrived to rocky planets and how meteorite minerals catalyzed complex organics from in an astrobiological context, 3) the remote sensing study of asteroids and comets to better understand their nature, and 4) the study of meteoroid interaction with the atmosphere of the Earth producing meteors or fireballs (we lead the SPMN network) to decipher the dynamic origin of hazardous rocks.
In the field of meteorite characterization our center has being recognized as international repository of NASA Antarctic meteorites. We have also recovered and characterized the last two Spanish meteorite falls: Villalbeto de la Peña ordinary chondrite in 2004 and Puerto Lápice (2007). We are also contributing to the identification of unnoticed meteorite falls like e.g. Ardón occurred in 1931. On the other hand, we are contributing to the study of meteorite falls in South America with the recent characterization of Cali (2009) and Berduc (2010) chondrite falls occurred in Colombia and Argentina respectively. Among other achievements, we also leaded the characterization of a meteorite find called Claromecó in 2016.

It is well know that the rocky planets were formed from planetesimals accreted under highly reducing conditions, so the origin of water and organics is matter of debate. In reference to our studies about water availability in our planetary system, the study of meteorites coming from asteroids, Moon, Mars or Vesta allow us to confirm that the so-called liquid element was omnipresent all over the outer regions of our solar system. The most primitive meteorites analyzed in our laboratories reveal that their parent asteroids (and in few cases even evolved comets) were soaked in water at an early time, just after their accretion and about 50 millions of years before the consolidation of Earth. We are leading laboratory studies and experiments to understand the role of water in the formation of so-called secondary minerals, a way in which water is continuously arriving to Earth as was bonded in aqueous alteration minerals and incorporated in solid rocks.
Concerning the remote study of asteroids and comets using telescopes, we perform CCD and spectroscopic observations of these bodies in order to get accurate photometric measurements with different standard filters. Earth-crossers and main-Belt asteroids are among our targets. However, first of them can be only observed during close approaches to Earth, being the most direct source of contemporary hazard to us. The 0.8 m Joan Oró Telescope located at Montsec Astronomical Observatory (Catalonia) allows a wide range of research in the minor bodies domain to be carried out. Our Near Earth Asteroids and Potentially Hazardous Asteroids programs during close approaches to our planet are also complemented with campaigns collecting disk-integrated photometry of selected main belt asteroids to enhance the Solar System science coming out from Gaia space mission.           
Finally, in the framework of the SPMN network that we built twenty years ago in cooperation with other research centers and universities, we want to collect the maximum information about new meteorite falls, and recover new meteorite falls as we did previously with Villalbeto de la Peña in 2004 and Puerto Lápice in 2007. Our stations continuously record meteors and fireballs over the Iberian Peninsula and Balearic Islands, allowing us to reconstruct trajectories and assess the origin of the rocks that penetrate in the Earth’s atmosphere. Thanks to the extracted orbital information of hundreds of fireballs we have demonstrated that Near Earth Asteroids are source of large rocks that produce meteorite falls. On the other hand, in the framework of the Spanish Fireball and Meteorite Network (SPMN), a dynamic study of the orbital evolution of meteoroids reaching the Earth will be also performed to identify the current sources of meteorites arriving to our planet. Being the meteorites free-delivered samples from remote objects of the solar system, their study and characterization in our laboratories is source of scientific, and technologic opportunity.

Selected publications

   - Moyano-Cambero C.E., Pellicer E., Trigo-Rodríguez J.M., Williams I.P, Blum J., Michel P., Küppers M., Martínez-Jiménez M., Lloro I., and Sort J. (2017) "Nanoindenting the Chelyabinsk Meteorite to Learn about Impact Deflection Effects in asteroids", Astrophysical Journal 835:157, 9 pp.

   - Rotelli L., Trigo-Rodríguez J.M., Moyano-Cambero C.E., Carota E., Botta L., Di Mauro E. and Saladino R. (2016) "The key role of meteorites in the formation of relevant prebiotic molecules in a formamide/water environment", Nature Scientific Reports, 6:38888, DOI: 10.1038/srep38888

   -  Moyano-Cambero C.E., Trigo-Rodríguez J.M., Llorca J., Fornasier S., Barucci M.A., and Rimola A. (2016) "A plausible link between the asteroid 21 Lutetia and CH carbonaceous chondrites" , Meteoritics & Planetary Science 51, 1795-1812.

   -  Beitz E., Blum J., Parisi M.G., and Trigo-Rodríguez J.M. (2016) "The collisional evolution of undifferentiated asteroids and the formation of chondritic meteoroids", Astrophysical Journal 824,, 29 pp.

   - Trigo-Rodríguez J.M., Lyytinen E., Gritsevich M., Moreno-Ibáñez M., Bottke W.F., Williams I., Lupovka V., Dmitriev V., Kohout T. and Grokhovsky V. (2015) Orbit and dynamic origin of the recently recovered Annama's H5 chondrite, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 449, 2119-2127.

   - Trigo-Rodríguez J.M., Moyano-Cambero C.E., Llorca J., Fornasier S., Barucci M.A., Belskaya I., Martins Z., Rivkin A.S., Dotto E., Madiedo J.M., and Alonso-Azcárate J. (2014) "UV to far-IR reflectance spectra of carbonaceous chondrites. I. Implications for remote characterization of dark primitive asteroids targeted by sample-return missions", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 437, 227-240.

Senior Institute members involved
J. M. Trigo
Institute of Space Sciences (IEEC-CSIC)

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An institute of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas

An institute of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas
Affiliated with the Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya

Affiliated with the Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya