Chondrules in Canada


This slice of the Allende meteorite bears strong resemblance to ALMA’s image of HL Tau (Wikipedia commons)

Last week, my intern-daughter and I traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to participate in a conference on chondrules as astrophysical objects. Although my primary reason for making the trip was because the organizers invited me to speak—a talk that I think went very well—I was pleasantly surprised at how much I took home from the conference itself.

Chondrules, as you may or may not know, are the tiny bits and pieces thought to have played a role in early planet formation. They show up as tiny spherules inside of meteorites. It turns out that meteorites have three critical ingredients: chondrules, calcium-aluminum inclusions (CAIs), and everything else. CAIs formed as material in the disk of dust and gas around the young sun condensed into solids, which happens when temperatures in the disk cool to a certain level.

It turns out chondrules and planets are sort of a chicken-and-egg thing. This week, I learned that scientists still aren’t certain exactly what role chondrules play when it comes to world-building. I’ve always heard of chondrules as the bits and pieces that went on to form planets, but it’s possible that they could instead be the bits and pieces left behind after planet formation.

We don’t even know how, exactly, chondrules form. There are some pretty intriguing models running the gauntlet from gas falling together to material being flash-heated as a young planet shoves things out of the way. Some models even call for chondrules to form a fine layer on the surface of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, something that upcoming missions could check for.

Of course, I used the time to network and meet new people, as well as reconnecting with folks I’ve met in the past. I’ve already received one paper in my inbox that I plan to review to see how widely covered it was, and how timely it might be. I have a few ideas for features playing around in my brain, as well. Once I sort through the possibilities, I’ll start the massive labor of pitching these stories, along with the outstanding Astrobiology Science Conference pieces that I held onto because I knew I’d be traveling.

For now, I have a new appreciation of chondrules and the fundamental questions behind how planets form.

What are some other great space mysteries that you think haven’t gotten enough press?

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