Predicting the chemical composition of (4)Vesta

Hi there! Today I present you a study entitled Chlorine and hydrogen degassing in Vesta’s magma ocean, by Adam R. Sarafian, Timm John, Julia Roszjár and Martin J. Whitehouse. This study has recently been published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. The goal here is, from the chemical analysis of meteorites which are supposed to come from Vesta, understand the evolution of its chemical evolution. In particular, how the degassing of its magma ocean impacts its chemical evolution.


I have presented the small planet (4)Vesta in that post. Basically, it is one of the largest Main-Belt asteroids, with a mean radius of some 500 km. The craters at its surface and the dynamical models of the early Solar System show that Vesta has been intensively bombarded. The largest of these impacts were energetic enough to melt Vesta and trigger its differentiation between a pretty dense core, a shallow magma ocean and a thin crust.

Despite having been visited by the spacecraft Dawn, the magma ocean has not been detected. Its presence is actually confirmed by the analyses of meteorites which fell on Earth.

The HED meteorites

Every day, about 6 tons of material hit the surface of the Earth, after having survived the atmospheric entry. Mineralogists split these meteorites into several groups. 5% of these meteorites are HEDs, for Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenites. These are achondritic basaltic meteorites, which are supposed to present similarities with Vesta. This hypothesis has been proposed in 1970 after comparison of the spectrum of Vesta and the one of these meteorites, and enforced since by the observations and theoretical works. So, it is now accepted that these meteorites come from Vesta or bodies similar to it, and studying them is a way to study the chemical composition of Vesta.
In this study, only the Eucrites will be addressed. They represent most of the HEDs, and contain 2 phosphates: the merrillite and the apatite. Moreover, they are systematically depleted in volatile elements, compared to carbonaceous chondrites and the Earth.

Chemical analysis

The authors have analyzed the chemical composition of 7 samples of eucrites, which were found on Earth. They present a variety of thermal alteration. Comparing them would be like watching a movie of the process of evolution of the material during the degassing in the magma ocean. The analyses were conducted on two sites: the Natural History Museum Vienna, in Austria, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (MA, USA). The involved technology is the scanning electron microscopy, which consists in obtaining images from the interaction of the sample with a focused bean of electrons, supplemented with an energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometer. This spectrometer gives the spectral signature of the interactions of the electrons with the rock sample, and so reveals the elements which constitute it.

The authors were particularly interested in measuring the concentrations of halogen (fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine), of stable isotopes of the chlorine, isotopes of hydrogen, and water. Comparing the relative concentration of these elements in the seven samples would give information on their volatilization during the outgassing process of the magma ocean, in conditions that do not exist on Earth.


The samples show different compositions in volatile elements (H2, H20, and metal chlorides), which show that there is some outgassing in Vesta’s magma ocean. The authors show in particular a large variability in the ratio [Cl]/[K], i.e. chlorite with respect to potassium. This means that not only the thermal evolution tends to reject volatile elements, but also that they are effectively ejected. This might be a concern since the ocean cannot be seen at the surface of Vesta. Anyway, this does not preclude outgassing, either through the crust, which is supposed to be thin, and/or with the assistance of giant impacts, which created craters deep enough to reach the ocean.

This way, we have a signature of the history of a planetary body in material found on the Earth. These results might have implications beyond Vesta, i.e. could be extended to other dwarf planets, and so give us information on the chemical evolution of the Solar System.

I hope you enjoyed this article. As usual, I am interested in your feed-back. So please, leave me some comments, share it, and happy new year!

To know more…

  • The study, which can also be found on ResearchGate, thanks to the authors for sharing!
  • The webpage of Adam Robert Sarafian, grad student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (USA)
  • The webpage of Timm John, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
  • The webpage of Julia Roszjár, Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria
  • The webpage of Martin Whitehouse, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm, Sweden

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