Origins of Meteorites & Atomic Bomb Testing Sites? A Connection?

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Science fiction literature is so packed full of super-sophisticated weapons and doomsday devices, it’s become the norm for our favored protagonists to make it their mission to disable them.

Most of these weapons of mass destruction are the design of hyper-advanced species or devious alien races, but many of the weapons are based off real life events. For instance, the development of the atom bomb.

But now, there might actually be a connection between the tests done during the Manhattan Project and the origins of meteorites, and possibly, the same WMDs so prevalent in science fiction.

It all started when Paul Steinhardt, one of the pioneers of quasicrystal research, found samples of quasicrystal among the debris of the Trinity bomb test site.

Quasicrystal Formations Found in A-Bomb Test Sites

Researchers have been studying the aftermath the atom bomb left on the landscape of the New Mexico test site in 1945.

The detonation of the atom bomb created extremely high temperatures and intense pressure, which fused sand and debris from the bomb tower—like copper—into a field of trinitite.

What’s trinitite, you ask?

Well, it’s a unique crystalline glass formed during nuclear events. Trinitite got its name from Trinity, the first atom bomb tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Trinitite comes in two different compositions based on its refraction index. Plus, trinitite comes in a few colors:

  • ‘Normal’ trinitite – usually a greenish hue, very low levels of metallic compounds
  • Red trinitite – gains its color from copper, iron and lead
  • Black trinitite – a very rare form of trinitite that contains high levels of iron

Trinitite has been a well-known substance since the 1940s, but researchers were shocked when they found samples of quasicrystals in a piece of red trinitite from New Mexico.

Breaking Down Man-made Quasicrystals and Natural Quasicrystals

So, quasicrystals. Sounds fancy, right?

Turns out, they are fairly common, but not at the bottom of a radioactive crater.

A quasicrystal refers to any crystalline structure that has a unique pattern that doesn’t repeat. In other common crystals, the atomic structure forms a lattice that repeats itself with perfect symmetry.

Quasicrystals have been sort of a physicist’s taboo since the 1980s, and were largely consider to be a joke. However, in 2011, Dr. Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the first quasicrystal, a diffraction pattern of an aluminum and manganese alloy.

Many more manmade quasicrystals have been discovered since 2011, but the hunt still continues for more natural quasicrystals. Paul Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist at Princeton, led a team to scour a remote volcanic region in Russia in search of natural quasicrystals.

And that’s where the trinitite comes in.

In a rare piece of red trinitite from New Mexico, Steinhardt discovered a quasicrystal that was actually formed because of the Trinity test. The heat, pressure, and violent impact of falling from the sky created the unique structure.

That unique structure of quasicrystal just so happens to also be found in meteorites.

Do Quasicrystals Give Us a Hint to the Origins of Meteorites?

As a science fiction enthusiast, this is where my brain started to spitball ideas before I even did any research.

If an atomic bomb created enough heat and pressure to form quasicrystals, what else had that kind of power?

Since the A-bomb is perhaps the most powerful weapon known to humankind, was it possible there was something even more lethal out there in the wide cosmos that could have the same effect?

Maybe the planet-destroying ray of the Death Star blew chunks of Alderaan deep into space with tiny quasicrystals on the debris. Or maybe a planet’s core exploded because its residents experimented on the core.

While much remains a mystery, researchers who studied the quasicrystals of the Khatyrka meteorite found in Russia suggest that the quasicrystals were formed during a collision between two asteroids. But there’s no concrete evidence that rules out other, more fanciful, possibilities. 

Tests on trinitite allow scientists to determine the type of nuclear event that occurred and approximate a location for the origin of the glassy substance. Is it only a matter of time before similar tests can tell us where in the universe these natural quasicrystals come from? Perhaps we’ll also learn about the origins of meteorites, even if they come from deep space.

For now, let your imagination roam. And please, don’t build a doomsday ray to try to make quasicrystals.

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