Grant helps reply to ‘messengers from space’

Western’s effort to keep an eye on the sky just got a little help from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Earth Sciences professor Roberta Flemming has been awarded a $450,000 CSA grant over three years to develop the skills of tomorrow’s researchers studying materials originating from space. The Astromaterials Training and Research Opportunities (ASTRO) is an initiative spanning a number of institutions from across the country, with an aim of retaining Canada’s best and brightest minds.

“It was a big effort actually,” Flemming said of ASTRO. “It ended up being very large.”

The team is comprised of researchers from seven institutions – Western, Memorial University in Newfoundland, the Royal Ontario Museum, Lakehead University, Brock University, University of Winnipeg and the University of Alberta.

Six of the researchers, a full half of the team, are from Western – Flemming, Neil Banerjee, Desmond Moser, Gordon Osinski and Elizabeth Webb, all from Earth Sciences, and Peter Brown, Physics & Astronomy.

“It’s a training and research opportunity,” Flemming said. “The idea is that we’re training the next generation of astromaterials research scientists.”

The ASTRO program will raise the level of Canadian expertise which, in turn, positions Canada as a place to study astromaterials and as an international partner for future space exploration and sample-return missions

“This is big,” Flemming continued. “This is $450,000 from the Canadian Space Agency, which we’re matching from various sources, mostly with in-kind instrumentation and NSERC top-ups for students.”

The ASTRO initiative will obtain meteorites for study from a variety of sources including the tracking/gathering expertise here at Western, recovery from older sites, accessing collections in museums and personal holdings as well as the NASA New Frontiers sample-return mission to asteroid 1999 RQ36.

“They tell us about the solar nebula, and the early solar system,” Flemming said. “They’re messengers from space and time.”

These meteorites provide clues to our solar system which formed over 4.5 billion years ago.

“Some of the first objects were these calcium aluminum rich inclusions that are the most refractory material in the solar system and they were actually floating around as little clots and they condensed,” she said.

When these materials fall to Earth as meteorites, they are then called chondrites. However, there are other meteorites that originate from places such as the moon and Mars, and are made up of iron. It takes a substantial amount of training to tell the difference.

ASTRO is enlisting the top astromaterials researchers in Canada to introduce the study of astromaterials through a short course on the fundamentals. Individual training in the top laboratories in Canada will provide highly qualified personnel with an array of specialized skills. Flemming is already teaching a course along those lines.

“I’m running a class right now called The Genesis of Meteorites and Planetary Materials and everyone in the class gets to analyze their own meteorite,” she said. “We had a couple of labs where they learned about meteorites and then they each got their own meteorite for about a month. They spend two weeks studying it under the microscope to look at it texturally and then they’re putting it under Micro X-Ray Diffraction where they’re getting strain information and mineral identification.”

She added this kind of work couldn’t be done under a regular microscope.

Each participant has a specialized technique ranging from detecting and tracking meteorites as they fall to analyzing samples through X-Ray diffraction, specialized scanning electron microscopy, stable isotope science, computerized tomography (the same kind of technology used to give people CT scans) to name a few.

“Basically we all have different techniques we can apply,” she said.