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Differentiation: chondrites & achondrites

Posted by Dustin Dickens on


When I first started learning about meteorites, I seemed to always be getting the terms "equilibrated" and "differentiated" mixed-up. Both terms can seem to describe a similar process at first glance, even while they are really quite different. If you've ever found it difficult to keep these terms straight, or just want to learn a little something about planetary science, this is pretty good place to start.

A good understanding of what differentiation actually is, will likely resolve the confusion. I'll get into the term 'equilibrated' in another post that tackles 'chondrites'. For this post though, we'll stick to the process of differentiation.

Keeping it simple, differentiation, also known as 'planetary differentiation' is the process of an asteroid accreting (growing) to the point that most of the metal distributed throughout its mass is pulled by gravity to its center to form a 'core'. This leaves the lighter rocky material to float above the iron-nickel core forming a 'mantle'. This little bit of information is a keyhole that allows us to glimpse just how intertwined planetary science and meteorites truly are.

So, what is a meteorite really? A meteorite is just a piece of an asteroid or planet that strikes another asteroid or planet, often ejecting bits of what it hit out into space. In a seemingly never ending cycle of cause-and-effect, one meteorite begets another meteorite and so on and so forth. This means a meteorite will either be ejected from a larger differentiated parent body or a smaller undifferentiated parent body. 

Leaving out massive collisions that utterly destroy one or both of the bodies involved in a cosmic smashup, a meteorite will generally originate from the surface of an asteroid or planet it's ejected from. If the metal has been gravitationally pulled to the center to form a core, there will logically not be much metal in a meteorite originating from its surface. 

Of all the types of meteorites known to us here on Earth, the most commonly found are known as 'chondrites'. There are many different kinds of chondrites, but the one thing nearly all of them share in common is something known as a 'chondrule'. All chondrites are essentially made of chondrules stuck together during the process of accretion and are considered to be undifferentiated. This is because their parent bodies have not undergone the process where metal separates (or differentiates) from silicates to form a core and mantle, a process that also destroys (or encrypts) the chondrules. 


Any meteorite that is not a chondrite is technically an 'achondrite'. The prefix "a" will typically indicate "without" in scientific terms. So a meteorite with the designation of 'achondrite' signifies a meteorite that has no chondrules. This is important to note when trying to get a handle on differentiation because it is this very process of differentiation that creates the achondrites. And conversely if an asteroid never gets big enough to undergo the process of differentiation, it remains chondritic. 

If we accept the idea that the entire Solar System was created or 'accreted' from the same giant molecular cloud of gas and dust particles, then we can make the leap to say that until any given accreted body in our Solar System grows large enough to undergo differentiation, it remains a chondrite. When one of these same bodies in our Solar System grows large enough to undergo the process of differentiation, it becomes an achondrite.

This is an extremely simplistic way of looking at planetary differentiation that does not take volatiles and gasses into account. It's also a very meteorite-centric way of looking at the Solar System and it's otherwise very diverse group of asteroids and planets. However, it is essentially a valid and useful distinction. 

So, when a newly created meteorite is ejected from the surface of a smaller asteroid that hasn't undergone differentiation, it will still have chondrules and be a chondrite. This means that as a rule all chondrites are undifferentiated because their parent bodies have not undergone the process of differentiation and their chondrules remain intact.

When a newly created meteorite is ejected from the surface of a larger asteroid or planet that has undergone differentiation, it will have had most if its metal removed and chondrules eliminated, making it an achondrite. This, in a nutshell, is the process of differentiation and how it relates to the distinction between chondritic and achondritic meteorites.




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