NASA researchers probe Mundrabilla meteorite
Posted: October 21, 2002

Pete Engel, an engineering specialist in Wyle Laboratory's Nondestructive Testing Laboratory at KSC, explains the testing being performed on a 100-pound Mundrabilla meteorite sample. The one-of-a-kind meteorite was found 36 years ago in Australia. Photo: NASA
A new NASA study of a one-of-a-kind meteorite found 36 years ago in Australia could help provide the science community and industry with fundamental knowledge for use in the design of advanced materials.

Such materials could be used for future spacecraft, improved jet aircraft and in various manufactured goods from cars to household materials. In addition, the meteorite - now at Kennedy Space Center - could help reveal secrets about the core of our planet and its magnetic field.

The 100-pound Mundrabilla meteorite sample, which is on loan to Marshall Space Flight Center from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, is being studied by MSFC and KSC, primarily through the use of KSC's Computed Tomography Scanner.

Dr. Donald Gillies, discipline scientist for materials science at MSFC's Microgravity Science and Applications Department, is the Principal Investigator on the study.

"Most meteorites are solid chunks of metal, surrounded by a rocky surface. This one is a combination of materials (iron-nickel and iron-sulfide) that became solid at different rates in cooling over millions of years," Dr. Gillies said. "It offers an amazing opportunity for understanding fundamentals of alloy formation."

This 100-pound Mundrabilla meteorite sample is being studied in Wyle Laboratory's Nondestructive Testing Laboratory at KSC. Photo: NASA
Pete Engel, an engineering specialist in Wyle Laboratory's Nondestructive Testing Laboratory at KSC, has processed the scans of the meteorite at KSC.

"The CT Scanner is able to reveal the untouched internal structure of the meteorite by detecting differences in the densities of its materials," Engel said. "Without a tool like the scanner, it would be impossible to study the inside of the meteorite without altering it by sawing into it or grinding it up."

The idea behind computed tomography - first used in the medical field - is to create a picture of a very thin cross section of an object by passing a very thin fan of X-rays or gamma rays through it and then repeating the process until every slice of an object is imaged in order to create a 3-D image. Dr. Gillies and Engel are conducting the meteorite CT work at KSC using gamma rays given off by a pencil lead-sized piece of radioactive cobalt as it decays.

"This meteorite, like all meteorites, was formed in a lower gravity environment than here on Earth," Dr. Gillies pointed out. "Like experiments performed on the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station, this research allows us to look at fundamental science questions. Unlike our own flight experiments, this one represents a billion year solidification experiment in low gravity."

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