If you’re looking for an out-of-this-world gift this Valentine’s Day, an auction house is offering up rare meteorite chunks from the , Mars and beyond — for as little as $250.
In an online sale beginning Tuesday, February 9, Christie’s auction house is auctioning off 72 meteorites — solid pieces of debris from celestial objects like comets and asteroids that arrive on Earth as , somehow managing to survive their journey through our atmosphere to land on the surface.
“The weight of every known meteorite is less than the world’s annual output of gold, and this sale offers spectacular examples for every collector, available at estimates ranging from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the auction house wrote on its website.
Included in the collection is a meteorite containing 7 billion-year-old stardust, space gems encased in iron and the fourth-largest slice of the moon. A large chunk of, worth an estimated $30,000 to $50,000, holds bubbles of the planet’s atmosphere trapped inside.
According to Christie’s, there are a dozen samples from the moon and, and another dozen previously housed by famous museums around the world.
“Everyone has an image in mind of how a meteorite ‘should look’ – an extraterrestrial body frictionally heated while punching through Earth’s atmosphere,” James Hyslop, head of science and natural history for Christie’s, said in a statement. “Rarely do the objects survive this fiery descent look like that shared ideal seen in this meteorite. It is a wonder to behold and an honor to have been entrusted with its sale.”
One object in the collection never hit the ground — a young boy in Morocco found the meteorite in the branches of a tree a day after a— it’s worth an estimated $15,000 to $25,000. Yet another hailed from the U.S.’ largest meteorite shower in Odessa, Texas, expecting to fetch $40,000 to $60,000.
“If there was ever a time to be awed by the infiniteness of the night sky, we’re living in it, but if you want to inspire and see eyes widen — touch a meteorite,” said curator Darryl Pitt.
The auction house said that one of the highlights of the sale is a 16-pound “highly aesthetic oriented stone meteorite,” estimated to sell for $50,000 to $80,000.
“Unlike 99% of all other meteorites, this meteorite did not tumble or invert as it plunged to Earth but maintained a stable orientation throughout its descent,” the auction house said. “The surface that faced Earth showcases elongated flight marks that radiate outwards in this compelling, extraterrestrial aerodynamic form.”
The meteorites have been found all over the world, from the Sahara Desert to Chile to Russia.
The “Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and Other Rare Meteorites” auction runs until February 23, and interested buyers located in New York can see them in person, by appointment.
Rare 'locked' letter sealed 300 years ago is finally opened virtually – CTV News
Three hundred years ago, before envelopes, passwords and security codes, writers often struggled to keep thoughts, cares and dreams expressed in their letters private.
One popular way was to use a technique called letter locking — intricately folding a flat sheet of paper to become its own envelope. This security strategy presented a challenge when 577 locked letters delivered to The Hague in the Netherlands between 1689 and 1706 were found in a trunk of undelivered mail.
The letters had never reached their final recipients, and conservationists didn’t want to open and damage them. Instead, a team has found a way to read one of the letters without breaking its seal or unfolding it in any way. Using a highly sensitive X-ray scanner and computer algorithms, researchers virtually unfolded the unopened letter.
“This algorithm takes us right into the heart of a locked letter,” the research team said in a statement.
“Sometimes the past resists scrutiny. We could simply have cut these letters open, but instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret, and inaccessible qualities. We’ve learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened.”
The technique revealed the contents of a letter dated July 31, 1697. It contains a request from Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant in The Hague, for a certified copy of a death notice of Daniel Le Pers.
The details may seem prosaic, but the researchers said the letter gives fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary people — a snapshot of the early modern world as it went about its business.
The trunk of correspondence belonged to a postmaster called Simon de Brienne and his wife, postmistress Marie Germain. It was acquired by the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague in 1926.
In addition to the unopened letters, it contains 2,571 opened letters and fragments that for one reason or another never reached their destination.
At that time, there was no such thing as a postage stamp and recipients, not senders, were responsible for the postal and delivery charges. If the recipient was deceased or rejected the letter, no fees could be collected and the letters weren’t delivered.
A NEW WAY TO MINE HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS
The X-ray scanners were originally designed to map the mineral content of teeth and have been used in dental research — until now.
“We’ve been able to use our scanners to X-ray history,” said study author David Mills, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London, in a statement.
“The scanning technology is similar to medical CT scanners, but using much more intense X-rays which allow us to see the minute traces of metal in the ink used to write these letters. The rest of the team were then able to take our scan images and turn them into letters they could open virtually and read for the first time in over 300 years.”
The new technique has the potential to unlock new historical evidence from the Brienne trunk and other collections of unopened letters and documents, the study said.
One tantalizing application could be to virtually unfold sealed items and letters in the Prize Papers — an archive of documents confiscated by the British from enemy ships between the 17th and 19th centuries.
“Using virtual unfolding to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day — and never even reached its recipient — is truly extraordinary,” the researchers said in the statement.
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.
Secrets of sealed 17th century letters revealed by dental X-ray scanners – Phys.org
In a world first, an international team of researchers has read an unopened letter from Renaissance Europe—without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way.
The research, published in Nature Communications, describes how an X-ray scanner used in dental research and ‘virtual unfolding’ allowed the interdisciplinary team to read the contents of a securely and intricately folded letter which has remained unopened for 300 years, while preserving its valuable physical evidence.
A highly sensitive X-ray microtomography scanner, developed at Queen Mary University of London’s dental research labs, was used to scan a batch of unopened letters from a 17th-century postal trunk full of undelivered mail.
The senders of these letters had closed them using ‘letterlocking’ – the historical process of intricately folding and securing a flat sheet of paper to become its own envelope. Letterlocking was common practice for secure communication before modern envelopes came into use, and is considered to be the missing link between ancient physical communications security techniques and modern digital cryptography.
Until now these letterpackets could only be studied and read by cutting them open, often damaging the historical documents. Now the team have been able to examine the letters’ contents without irrevocably damaging the systems that secured them.
Professor Graham Davis from Queen Mary University of London said: “We designed our X-ray scanner to have unprecedented sensitivity for mapping the mineral content of teeth, which is invaluable in dental research. But this high sensitivity has also made it possible to resolve certain types of ink in paper and parchment. It’s incredible to think that a scanner designed to look at teeth has taken us this far.”
Dr. David Mills from Queen Mary University of London said: “We’ve been able to use our scanners to X-ray history. The scanning technology is similar to medical CT scanners, but using much more intense X-rays which allow us to see the minute traces of metal in the ink used to write these letters. The rest of the team were then able to take our scan images and turn them into letters they could open virtually and read for the first time in over 300 years.”
This process revealed the contents of a letter dated July 31, 1697. It contains a request from Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant in The Hague, for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers (full transcript and images available). The letter gives a fascinating insight into the lives and concerns of ordinary people in a tumultuous period of European history, when correspondence networks held families, communities, and commerce together over vast distances.
Following the X-ray microtomography scanning of the letter packets, the international team then applied computational algorithms to the scan images to identify and separate the different layers of the folded letter and ‘virtually unfold’ it.
The authors suggest that the virtual unfolding method, and categorisation of folding techniques, could help researchers to understand this historical version of physical cryptography, while at the same time conserving their cultural heritage.
“This algorithm takes us right into the heart of a locked letter,” the research team explains. “Sometimes the past resists scrutiny. We could simply have cut these letters open, but instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret, and inaccessible qualities. We’ve learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened. Using virtual unfolding to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day—and never even reached its recipient—is truly extraordinary.”
Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography, Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-21326-w
Queen Mary, University of London
Secrets of sealed 17th century letters revealed by dental X-ray scanners (2021, March 2)
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Human origins: 'Little Foot' fossil's big journey out of Africa – BBC News
A priceless fossil was briefly brought to a UK research centre in complete secrecy two years ago, in an operation that had more than a touch of the spy novel about it.
The specimen was transported across South Africa with an armed guard, treated like an incognito VIP on an international flight, and then whisked slickly to the Diamond X-ray Light Source just south of Oxford.
It was at the British research facility that scientists were able to see some microscopic details in the ancient remains that could help unravel key clues to the origins of modern humans.
Details of the operation have been made public only now, as the first results from the X-ray investigations have been shared with the wider research community.
“It was immensely nerve-wracking,” palaeoanthropologist Dominic Stratford recalls of the cloak-and-dagger mission, the first time any part of a prehistoric individual has been allowed out of South Africa.
Not only are the remains beyond value, after three million or more years embedded in sediments in the floor of a South African cave, they are immensely fragile.
What Prof Stratford had transported was the skull of “Little Foot”, the most complete Australopithecine fossil ever recovered. And given the Australopithecines’ position on the evolutionary road to modern humans, this makes Little Foot extra special.
Accompanying Prof Stratford and the skull was Ronald Clarke, the Witwatersrand University professor who led Little Foot’s more-than-20-year excavation from the Sterkfontein Caves just outside Johannesburg.
Also in the party was Dr Amélie Beaudet, keen to use Diamond’s powerful X-rays to peer inside the delicate object while doing no damage.
“With the X-rays, we found we could see tiny structures like the vasculature system, where there had been blood vessels inside Little Foot’s bones, which normally would require physically slicing up a specimen,” she told BBC News.
Prof Ian Tattersall, curator emeritus of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is bowled over by the details revealed in the first scholarly paper to come out of the Diamond study.
“It is wonderful to have confirmation that micromorphology at this resolution can be recovered from a hominid this old,” he said.
From the Natural History Museum in London, Dr Louise Humphrey, a specialist in human origins and bioarchaeology not involved in the study, affirms the power of “this type of non-invasive investigation of microscopic structures… to reconstruct different aspects of an individual’s life history from birth to death”.
As an example, she highlights details in the tooth enamel revealed by the X-rays.
“Tooth enamel is not renewed during life,” Dr Humphrey explains, “so it preserves a record of an individual’s environment, diet and health during the first few years of life when the tooth crowns are developing.”
Disrupted growth patterns revealed by the high-resolution images indicate “that [Little Foot] experienced at least two events that interrupted development during early life”, she says.
Dr Beaudet told the BBC these tooth defects really stood out. “Dietary deficiency or nutritional stress” are blamed in the paper, though in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme, she accepted “we don’t know if Little Foot was sick at some time, or if she couldn’t find enough food”.
Dr Beaudet says they are also planning to measure a layer of material at the root of the teeth called cementum, which could indicate Little Foot’s age when she died. It’s thought the creature fell through an opening in the floor of the cave where she was found.
The sheer amount of data the team managed to collect at Diamond, seven terabytes (140 Blu-ray discs), has been a challenge. Generating it was, too.
The skull, not much smaller than a modern human’s, was far larger than they had been accustomed to examining at the synchrotron’s “I12” imaging beamline.
The South African researchers had first sent a plastercast of the specimen, explained Thomas Connelley, the principal scientist on the beamline.
This meant the team could rehearse how best to mount the real object safely. And it was too large to be imaged all at once, so that new techniques had to be developed to knit together a patchwork of stills to create a complete 3D rendering – all the while conscious of the skull’s importance in human prehistory.
“Only two people were allowed to handle the fossil,” he reported. “Prof Clarke and Dominic Stratford.”
He added: “None of us were allowed to touch it – with very good reason! Little Foot is probably the oldest and best-preserved fossils of this type.
“This was a very special experiment,” Dr Connelley admitted. “It was actually quite emotional to think that we were studying one of our very early ancestors – for everyone I think, certainly for me.”
Dominic Stratford confesses to a little emotion, too.
“It was a fantastic moment when we were all ‘hutched’ together in the beamline control room – it’s always difficult to imagine what’s preserved, so when we finally started to see some images, it was completely remarkable,” he recalled.
Dr Beaudet, now based at Cambridge University after several years on Prof Clarke’s team at Witwatersrand, says it is the imprint of the brain on the inside of the skull that will be most interesting for what it reveals of the early development of human intelligence.
Already the team has identified the traces of blood vessels in the inner skull that are similar to ones found in modern humans.
“The main hypothesis is that in modern humans, these vessels are involved in thermoregulation – preventing our brain from becoming too hot. With Little Foot, the brain was the same size as a chimpanzee’s. It was only later in evolution that the brain grew dramatically. But at some point, something had to change in the vascular system, too. So the fact that we can see these vessels in Little Foot is quite promising,” she said.
The problem is that at the moment, the team has no fossil comparisons – no study this detailed has been attempted before on ancient human remains.
For palaeoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, this is what makes the preliminary data from Diamond so tantalising.
“While there are no amazing revelations here, this study opens large vistas for the future,” he said. “And it is especially significant in demonstrating that micromorphology can be recovered from truly ancient hominid fossils without having to resort to destructive techniques. That is truly an exciting prospect.”
There is much more work to be done on the skull scans already obtained, according to Dr Beaudet, but she is looking forward to examining the leg and arm bones, hands and feet of Little Foot, for what they will reveal of our ancestors’ transition from tree-living to scurrying around on the ground.
The success with these first experiments reassures Prof Stratford.
“One of the blessings and curses of Little Foot is that we have these amazingly well-preserved, complete, single bones, which is almost unheard of. Fragments are easy to move around and to scan. But if you have a complete leg bone, or upper-arm and shoulder blade – that becomes a real challenge,” he said.
“We have seen the potential to do this at Diamond. And that means we could reconstruct how Little Foot lived on the landscape, how she moved around, what kind of stresses she was putting the bones under. And we could fit that into the big picture of human evolution at the time.”
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