Making Habitable Worlds: The Formation and Evolution of Moons and Planets

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Our Solar System - the Sun orbited by 8 planets and their moons, formed 4.6 Gyr ago from a cloud of dust and gas. Since then it has undergone amazing changes, from the formation of planetary bodies and their moons, the geological evolution of these bodies and the emergence of life. We will study all of these processes using a multi-pronged approach involving laboratory measurements of rocks from space (meteorites) and planetary analogue material, and analysis of images and data returned from spacecraft.

We can learn about the early stages of the solar system's history by studying meteorites that originated in rocky asteroids. Some asteroids have remained rather dormant throughout their history, and preserve the very materials that were once swirling around the newly forming Sun. We propose to study both the high-temperature formed platinum group element nuggets as well as the more fragile organic components to learn about the primordial soup from which the solar system emerged.

The presence and action of water is not limited to the Earth, asteroids and comets. Missions to Mars have revealed its surface to be strewn with water-bearing minerals but have yet to return samples that we can study in the laboratory. We are fortunate to have a selection of meteorites that originated on Mars in our collection, and we plan to study these to learn about the action of water during its recent history, using Li isotopes, a tool that has been used successfully for studying the action of water on Earth but not yet been used for Mars samples.

The planet Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. However there is no consensus about how these objects formed. By analysing meteorites that may be analogous to the martian moons, we will help constrain their composition and therefore their origins.

An important process throughout the solar system is impacts between bodies. Looking up to the Moon one can see how vital cratering was to its history, and the same holds for all the planets in the solar system. We can measure the age of planetary surfaces from the number of craters on them. By looking at the very recent processes and changes that are happening on the Moon very recently we can make the crater counting technique more accurate.

It is a key part of our work to communicate our research to diverse audiences especially including school students, and to exchange information with our academic, governmental and industrial colleagues.

Planned Impact

Our research will benefit scientists and engineers working in space related fields from peer-reviewed papers and conference presentations.

We are particularly passionate about two-way communication of our work with the public via the following mechanisms:

1. The Natural History Museum (NHM) will continue to engage the public in space sciences via our exhibition space, building on the very popular and successful Museum of the Moon exhibit on display in 2019-2020. This offer will include both formal exhibits and on-gallery talks and show-and-tell.
2. Our museum based offer will be supported by a website, digital media activities and talks to the public (e.g. Nature Live talks) and schools, especially focusing on schools in less privileged areas.
3. We will lead an exciting programme of engaging school children in planetary sciences using a project with lego and also with 3D printouts of extraterrestrial materials.
4. We will participate in Science Festivals such as Science Uncovered, New Scientist Live, the Harwell Science Festival.
5. We will continue to support our academic colleagues in providing meteorites for their teaching and outreach events.
6. We will apply to participate in the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in 2022 on the topic of Mars sample return

In addition we will facilitate the following Knowledge Exchange Activities:

1. We will further develop our extra-terrestrial sample curation activities following the completion of our EC funded EURO-CARES project and ESA funded analogue collection project. Sample return missions involve knowledge exchange in a variety of fields including manufacturing, IT, telecommunications, engineering and academia. The aim is to foster expertise to enable the development of a European Extraterrestrial Return Sample Curation Facility in the UK (or have strong UK involvement if it is on another site).

2. We will continue to develop instrumentation to enable non-destructive analysis of small samples:
a. We will work to maximise the spatial resolution of energy-dispersive spectroscopy (EDX), in collaboration with Bruker Nano.
b. We will improve the imaging capabilities of CT scans in collaboration with Carl Zeiss.
c. We will continue to work will colleagues at Diamond Light Source in Harwell to develop state-of-the-art X-ray beam instrumentation.

3. We will combine data from the above techniques in order to further increase knowledge exchange between disciplines. The elemental and crystallographic information obtained by SEM (EDX, CL, EBSD) can be combined with computer tomography (CT) to compute 3D compositional information. Our results will help in understanding the limitations and possibilities of each technique. Our approach is unique in this respect and has potential applications in testing the accuracy of recently designed X-ray photon CT detectors. Our 3D composition data will be helpful for the development of new generation, chemistry-sensitive tomography detectors. This information will be fed to instrument manufacturers and scientists and engineers in other disciplines (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, material sciences, Earth Sciences).

4. We will continue our collaborations with medical imaging specialists, pharmacists, curators and engineers to promote two way knowledge exchange.


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