Big news from the UK today! No, not that news… space news!
In fact, the very cool back story on how – if it all works out – ESA’s ATV-5 may help UK artist Katie Paterson send a chunk of primordial space rock back into space!
Paterson’s installation, Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky, is on display at the UK’s prestigious Turner Contemporary gallery this summer, and features a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite that has been cast, melted and recast as a model of itself, retaining its original form.
Now for the full story…
Katie says that Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky presents curious visitors with a ‘newly formed yet still ancient meteorite, imbued with cosmic history.’
“The iron, metal and dust inside have been reformed, and the layers of its cosmic lifespan – the intermixing of space and time, the billions of years of pressure and change – have become collapsed, transformed and then, by the hand of human technology, renewed,” she says.
While developing the concept for the installation, Katie was struck by an idea: would it be possible to ‘close the story’ of her Campo del Cielo meteorite by returning it back to space?
“By sending it ‘back to space’, I hope to fire the imaginations of students, youth – anyone, really – and foster a discussion on our relation with the wider universe,” she explains.
Back up from where it came
The meteorite to be flown on board ATV-5 is a fragment, weighing 680g, of an original Campo del Cielo meteorite, measuring 87mm x 75mm x 60mm (at widest points), and comprising nickel-iron material (see pictures below).
The idea to conceptually return the meteorite to whence it came began with Katie late last year, but it resonates quite nicely with a number of the Agency’s activities. By symbolically returning the fragment to space, ATV is helping ‘complete the journey’ and inspire all of us to consider a number of deep questions, including:
- The origins of life on Earth and the role played by meteorites and asteroids
- Life’s evolution, and its cosmic context
- Astrobiology: the study of life and its existence in the universe
- The connections between science and art
- Our relationship with ideas of time – geological and cosmic
- Connections to natural history through materials such as asteroids and meteorites
- Future human missions to asteroids
- The hunt for near Earth objects – that may threaten Earth
- Asteroid hunting in space and meteorite hunting on Earth
- The evolution of Earth as a habitable planet & planetary science
- The search for life elsewhere in the Solar System
- The importance of human space exploration in this quest
“Scientists recognise comets, meteorites and asteroids as the debris left over from the formation of our Solar System,” says Dr Detlef Koschny, responsible for near-Earth object activities at ESA’s Space Situational Awareness office.
“As such, studying them up close, if they fall to Earth, or deep in space, via telescopes or with spacecraft – like ESA’s Rosetta – is vital to understanding how planets and our Solar System emerged.”
“So, really, objects like this bit of meteorite symbolise a lot of what we are trying to achieve.”
Flight qualification testing
ESA has provisionally allocated space on the next Automated Transfer Vehicle, Georges Lemaître, due to voyage to the orbital outpost next year.
Flight qualification testing of the meteorite fragment will be conducted at ESTEC, ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre, Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
This will verify that the sample poses no hazard to crew due to outgassing, crumbling or other effects. If accepted for transport, the 680g sample will be stowed in a standard Cargo Transfer Bag (CTB) on board ATV George Lemaitre to be launched via an Ariane 5 launcher from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in early 2014.
Communicating with the Universe
This will not be the first time that a piece of meteorite has been returned to space.
NASA astronaut Stanley G. Love, making his first flight in 2008, brought a 470-million-year-old chondrite recovered from the Sahara desert in 2000 into space with him on Shuttle flight STS-122, 7-20 February 2008. The fragment remained packed away, however, and was not used during the mission. Love returned it to its owner, the University of Hawaii, after the mission.
Stan sent us a note earlier, writing:
Your project to send a meteorite to the ISS sounds interesting*. We [will] have taken an object that came to Earth from space, put a uniquely human signature on it, and returned it to space. On the most fundamental level, it’s a way of communicating with the universe.
Stan* also added: I think the value is much more symbolic than scientific, especially if the sample you’re sending has been melted and re-cast. That process resets the “clock” for geological age-dating techniques and erases the very interesting crystal patterns seen in ancient iron meteorites.