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BIMS Open University visit

To see all photos of our visit please see here

Early onTuesday 5th April 2011. Myself and three other BIMS members found ourselves sat in a canteen at the Open University (OU) Milton Keynes eagerly waiting to begin our long planned visit. The OU is world renowned for its teaching and distance learning methods and since its inception in 1969 has proved a pioneer in establishing open access learning policies. With more than 240,000 students, the OU is the largest academic institution in the UK with over 1.8 million students having taken an OU course. Within this huge organisation amongst a varied assortment of departments and disciplines sits the Planetary and Space Science Research Institute (PSSRI) Areas of research here cover both laboratory based and space mission experiments investigating the origin of the solar system, evolution of the planets and the conditions for life. Well known names of staff members include Professor Monica Grady, Professor Colin Pillinger and Dr. Richard Greenwood amongst others. It was Richard Greenwood who had in fact organised this visit for us and as we sat drinking coffee we were all eager to get started. I had met Matt Smith and Graham Ensor before but this was my first time meeting Kieron Heard and after many forum chats and emails it was great to put a face to a name 🙂

The oxygen isotope laboratory.

So after introductions all round and finishing our caffeine boost we began our tour. The first port of call was to the Petrography suite where we shown thin sections in cross polarised light of Allende, Limerick and a very exciting new UK meteorite found by Graham Ensor 🙂 Graham had found a small stone in Ireland following a widely reported fireball in 2003.  Classification had recently been completed by Dr. Greenwood and it was found to be an unequilibrated H3 chondrite.

We then moved to the lecture theatre where Dr. Greenwood gave a very interesting presentation on oxygen isotope examinations in meteorites. This is his main area of research and although an obviously complex area he presented it very well meaning we all came away with a better understanding of the subject.

Model of the instrument made for the Beagle 2 mission to Mars.

Lunchtime! so we headed over to the canteen along with Richard and a couple of PHD students for a bite to eat and more meteorite chat.

After lunch we visited the oxygen isotope laboratory to see in practice what Richard had spoken about previously. The room and equipment within was hugely impressive with a mass of pipes, tubing, dials and levers. A tiny sample to be analysed (less than 2mg) is vaporised using a laser. The oxygen is then liberated using bromine pentafluoride and the contaminants removed. A mass spectrometer is then used to measure the abundance and ratios of the different oxygen isotopes. The three different stable oxygen isotopes are Oxygen 16, Oxygen 17 and Oxygen 18 with Oxygen 16 being the most common with 99.7% natural abundance. The ratios of Oxygen 17 to Oxygen 16 and Oxygen 18 to Oxygen 16 are then calculated and the values are Delta 17 and Delta 18 respectively. It is these values when compared that give a value when plotted on a graph that show where that particular sample sits in comparison to others. This technique is being used more and more routinely in meteorite classification.

Model of the ‘Ptolemy’ instrument made for the Rosetta mission.

We were then given a brief input into the workings of the organic chemistry lab by Dr. Jon Watson before going through to the spaceflight development lab. We were greeted here by Dr. Geraint ‘Taff’ Morgan and Dr. Andy Morse. They have developed probe instrumentation for a number of space missions including the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars. Their most recent work was the ‘Ptolemy’ instrument for the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov – Gerasimenko. The Rosetta mission is the first to be designed to both orbit and land on a comet. It is planned to orbit the comet for 17 months before landing to complete the most detailed ever study of a comet nucleus. The ‘Ptolemy’ instrument is carried within the ‘Philae’ robotic lander and contains 26 sample ovens and a mass spectrometer and is designed to perform chemical and isotope analysis on samples from the comet. What is amazing about this is the size of the instrument and the fact that it weighs only 4.5kg and yet houses pretty much all of the equipment that is housed within the oxygen isotope lab!

Trying to keep straight faces after the dressing up routine 🙂

The work done here is also now being used a lot closer to home for terrestrial based applications from air quality control and monitoring to various medical uses. An example was given of these techniques being used to ‘smell’ patient’s breath or urine in order to diagnose serious medical conditions without using more invasive techniques in use currently. This is obviously a huge research area and one which financially has great implications for the future funding and continued development of such technology.

It was a privilege to spend time here looking at all these specimens.

We were then introduced to Professor Colin Pillinger. I had been in contact with him via email and phone many times but it was great to talk face to face with such a well known character within the Space science community. Colin is an authority on the story of the Wold Cottage meteorite and especially the life of the main protagonist in the story – Major Edward Topham. We have shared many conversations since and I have developed a great passion for the story and places within the historic meteoritic milestone that is the story of the Wold Cottage meteorite.

Our final visit of the day was to see the meteorite collection. The research collection of a few thousand specimens is housed within a hi tech positive pressure clean facility. There are a lot of desert finds represented here and also a collection of Antarctic finds from the Euromet program . There are numerous drawers containing well catalogued specimens and we spent a good hour with Richard kindly showing us many specimens found within.

Kieron and Graham getting a closer look.

One oddity shown to us was a large jar of sediment that was collected by the Challenger expedition in the 1870s. The contents of the jar had somewhat dried up since being collected but the label showed that this particular sample was collected 1000km South East of Bermuda at a depth of over 5km. The challenger expedition recovered numerous such samples and micro meteorites were found within some of them.

Sediment sample recovered from the Challenger expedition.

We all had a great day and huge thanks must go to all of the staff at the OU who gave up their time for us on the day but especially Dr. Richard Greenwood who accompanied us throughout and made us all feel so welcome. His time is obviously precious and we all appreciated him giving up so much of it for us during our visit. We will certainly be back for more as we only scratched the surface and there was so much more to see and do.

To see all photos of our visit please see here

Further reading and links

PSSRI website

Dr. Richard Greenwood’s blog

Oxygen isotopes in meteorites

Rosetta mission

Beagle 2 mission

BIMS article on OU visit by Matt Smith

Wold Cottage – A meteorite homecoming

Wold Cottage- A meteorite homecoming – Media and links