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Meteorite reveals secrets of the Moon

The meteorite has a maximum diameter of seven centimetres (Peter Vollenweider)

Swiss scientists have unveiled details about a lunar meteorite found two years ago in the desert of the Gulf state of Oman.

The 206-gram rock, which contains high levels of radioactive elements, has revealed new information about the Moon.

The meteorite, SaU 169, which is named after the discovery site in Oman’s desert region of Sayh al Uhaymir, is unique, according to Edwin Gnos of Bern University’s Institute of Geological Sciences.

Although small in size, it has high concentrations of uranium and thorium. Only lunar dust brought back by United States Apollo space missions is known to have similar properties.

SaU 169 allowed scientists to gather information about the age of one of the largest lunar craters, Lalande, according to an article published in the magazine “Science”.

“We first noticed the rock when we drove through the desert in January 2002. We got out of the car to have a closer look,” said Gnos at a news conference in Bern on Thursday.

“The rock appeared to be unusual. Initially we were not sure whether it was a meteorite or not,” he added.

The object was later analysed with the help of experts in Germany, Sweden, the US and Britain.

“Sea of Showers”

Their findings made it possible to determine the age of the “Mare Imbrium” region on the Moon, commonly known as the “Sea of Showers”. Scientists now believe the sea was formed around 3.9 billion years ago.

“The rock dates back to the beginning of viable conditions on Earth,” said the scientists.

It was hurled into space about 340,000 years ago from the lunar surface. It is assumed that the rock finally landed in the desert less than 10,000 years ago.

So far only about 30 pieces of lunar rock have been found on Earth. But hundreds of other meteorites fall from the sky every year, including an average of two in Switzerland, according to Gnos.

Swiss project in Oman

A Swiss team of scientists, headed by Gnos and Beda Hofmann, has been carrying out geological research in Oman since 2001.

The mission is the result of 35 years of collaboration between the two countries and is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

In February 2001 Swiss geologists found a meteorite from Mars in Oman’s desert region. The rock weighed 223g and was named “Sayh al Uhaymir 094”.

“Oman is one of the best regions [to find rocks], because the area is vast and remained untouched for a long time,” Marc Hauser, a member of the Swiss team, told swissinfo in an interview two years ago.

“Meteorites are fascinating messengers from space,” he added. “They give us pointers as to when our solar system came into being.”

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Meteorites are relatively small extraterrestrial material bodies that reach the Earth’s surface.
Approximately boulder-sized or less – meteorites are fragments resulting from the collision of asteroids.
Upon entering the atmosphere they heat up and form a meteor or shooting star.

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In brief

The lunar rock was found in the Sayh al-Uhaymir desert in Oman in 2002 by Swiss scientists.

In 2001 a team from Bern University also found a meteorite from Mars in the same region.

The lunar rock has been on display at Bern’s Natural History Museum since November.

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