April 27, 2016
Meteorite research lands at SUNY
In laboratories in Bowers Hall at SUNY Cortland, meteorites are being sliced open and studied with the hope that they provide a glimpse into how life-supporting planetary systems formed billions of years ago.
The work is part of two NASA-funded research projects being conducted by Melissa Morris, an associate professor in thephysics department. NASA provided more than $600,000 to cover equipment and salary costs so students get paid for the research opportunity.
The first project, which began in 2014 whenMorris began working at SUNY Cortland, revolves around the study of chondrules — millimeter-size melted minerals found in meteorites thought to have been formed billions of years ago.
The second project focuses on studying the formation of melted rims around the chondrules.
“Those (chondrules) are some of the oldest material in the solar system and no one really knows how they formed,” Morris said. “We (researchers) honestly think every solid piece of material in the solar system started out as a chondrule.”
Researchers hope that if people can find out how the parts of a meteorite came about, they’ll find a key to understanding how planets formed, Morris said.
NASA keeps her on set deadlines throughout the year to see what information she has collected. She said a few times every year she will attend a NASA seminar to talk on the subjects she is studying.
Before coming to SUNY Cortland in the fall of2014, Morris worked as the assistant director for the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University. She focused on research and began the grant proposal process for her first project. But Morris said the center could notaccommodate her passion for teaching.
So when the teaching opportunity at SUNY Cortland appeared, with the opportunity for Morris to continue her research, she could not turn it down.
Her first project was approved just before she came to Cortland, and the second was approved in the summer of 2015.
Morris works with a team of five — six this summer — SUNY Cortland students from a variety of majors studying an abundance of meteorites. Half of her students work in a lab, cutting the meteorites into smaller pieces, polishing them, mounting them in epoxy to study under a microscope. The information they collect is transferred to the other half of her students in the computer lab, reconstructing the discovered information into a 3-D model.
Morris says all of her student assistants have come to her interested in the topic of the projects.
“I honestly love working with the students,” Morris said.
Andrew Duval, a sophomore biochemistry majorat SUNY Cortland, is the lead student in charge ofthe lab work. He began working with Morris as a freshman, and although her project does not directly coincide with his major, he said the project was too great of an opportunity to turn down.
“The relationship of what is in here (the meteorite) and what’s on the outside of here kind of tells the story of what happened in the beginning of our solar system,” Duval said. “So, that kind of captivated my mind. It’s not just the rock, it’s the story that’s within the meteorite.”
Duval is in charge of cutting the meteorites, polishing them and preparing them so they can be clearly viewed under a microscope. He works a high-powered microscope to study millimeter, and sometimes smaller, sections of meteorites. When he spots a chondrule, the microscope can pinpoint its component minerals, which is important to discovering how it formed.
“This meteorite tells us what happened before us and before Earth was even created,” Duval said. “These are the most primordial substances of the solar system.”
Morris and her studentassistants have yet to identify any new elements through their research, but they have identified new minerals. She said they have found minerals which were formed in unique ways to create extraterrestrial rocks.
There is no specific deadline to complete the projects, Morris said. But when they do conclude, Morris’ planetary research willnot come to a halt; she has more projects in development. One she is proposing will also deal with chondrules, while another will deal with astro solar water — the theory water came from meteorites, a key study in the formation of planetary systems that could support life.
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