Cosmochemist Larry Nittler studies extraterrestrial materials, including meteorites and interplanetary dust particles (IDPs), to understand the formation of the Solar System, the galaxy, and the universe and to identify the materials involved. He is particularly interested in developing new techniques to analyze different variants of the same atom—isotopes—in small samples. In related studies, he uses space-based X-ray and gamma-ray instrumentation to determine the composition of planetary surfaces. He was part of the 2000-2001 scientific team to hunt for meteorites in Antarctica.

Nittler is especially interested in presolar grains contained in meteorites and in what they can tell us about our cosmic origins. He develops and uses advanced microanalytical techniques to locate and analyze these tiny particles. The Solar System formed about 4.5 billion years ago from a cloud of gas and dust. Most of the original dust grains were vaporized during Solar System formation, but in the 1980s, researchers discovered that a fraction of these particles survived, trapped in meteorites. Presolar grains are about one thousandth of a millimeter in diameter. They predate other solid material in the Solar System and are believed to have formed in winds and explosions of ancient dying stars. The unusual abundance ratios of different isotopes in presolar grains compared with other Solar System products are their defining feature. They give researchers information about a number of processes, including how elements are synthesized inside stars, how the Milky Way galaxy evolves, and what the first Solar System materials were.

As Deputy Principal Investigator on NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury, Nittler is playing a leading role in determining the chemical composition of the Solar System’s innermost planet. MESSENGER, led by former Terrestrial Magnetism director Sean Solomon, has been returning a wealth of scientific data since entering obit around Mercury in March 2011. By analyzing x-ray and gamma-ray signals emitted by rocks at the planet’s surface, Nittler and colleagues have determined that Mercury is surprisingly rich in magnesium, sulfur and sodium and low in iron. By comparing elemental maps to other data sets, Nittler is unraveling clues to the origin and geological history of Mercury, an end-member of planetary formation in our solar system.

 Nittler recently worked on NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission to advance our understanding of the relationship of asteroids to meteorites. Although it is known from both calculations and observations that most meteorites originated from asteroids, it has been difficult to link specific asteroid classes to specific meteorite classes.

  Nittler, with collaborators, reduced and interpreted data from NEAR to determine the elemental composition of the asteroid's surface. The data clearly showed that Eros is primitive; it has not differentiated into a core, mantle, and crust. Except for the ratio of sulfur to silicon, the elemental ratios agree with those measured in ordinary chondrites—the most common type of meteorite—indicating a possible relationship. The sulfur/silicon ratio, however, is much lower than in chondrites, a fact that most likely reflects some sort of “space-weathering” processes causing sulfur to volatilize and escape.

 Nittler received his B.A. in physics from Cornell University and his Ph. D. in physics from Washington University. Before coming to Carnegie as a staff researcher in 2001, he was a postdoc at Carnegie, and a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He has also consulted with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for numerous years. For more information see http://www.dtm.ciw.edu/people/larry-r-nittler

Scientific Area: 

Explore Carnegie Science

January 13, 2017

Even though carbon is one of the most-abundant elements on Earth, it is actually very difficult to determine how much of it exists below the surface in Earth’s interior. Analysis by Carnegie’s Marion Le Voyer and Erik Hauri of crystals containing completely enclosed mantle magma with its original carbon content preserved has doubled the world’s known finds of mantle carbon. The findings are published in Nature Communications.

Overall, there is a lot about carbon chemistry that takes place below Earth’s crust that scientists still don’t understand. In particular, the amount of carbon in the Earth’s mantle has been the subject of hot debate for decades. This topic is of interest

GIA, Gemological Institute of America, Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science
December 15, 2016

Washington, DC—New research from a team including Carnegie’s Steven Shirey, Emma Bullock, and Jianhua Wang explains how the world’s biggest and most-valuable diamonds formed—from metallic liquid deep inside Earth’s mantle. The findings are published in Science.

The research team, led by Evan Smith of the Gemological Institute of America, studied large gem diamonds like the world-famous Cullinan or Lesotho Promise by examining their so-called “offcuts,” which are the pieces left over after the gem’s facets are cut for maximum sparkle. They determined that these diamonds sometimes have tiny metallic grains trapped inside them that are made up of a mixture of metallic iron and nickel

October 21, 2016

Washington, DC—A group of citizen scientists and professional astronomers, including Carnegie’s Jonathan Gagné, joined forces to discover an unusual hunting ground for exoplanets. They found a star surrounded by the oldest known circumstellar disk—a primordial ring of gas and dust that orbits around a young star and from which planets can form as the material collides and aggregates.

Led by Steven Silverberg of University of Oklahoma, the team described a newly identified red dwarf star with a warm circumstellar disk, of the kind associated with young planetary systems.  Circumstellar disks around red dwarfs like this one are rare to begin with, but this star, called AWI0005x3s,

Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, Robin Dienel
September 26, 2016

Washington, DC— When a star is young, it is often still surrounded by a primordial rotating disk of gas and dust from which planets can form. Astronomers like to find such disks because they might be able to catch the star partway through the planet-formation process, but it’s highly unusual to find such disks around brown dwarfs or stars with very low masses. New work from a team led by Anne Boucher of Université de Montréal, and including Carnegie’s Jonathan Gagné and Jacqueline Faherty, has discovered four new low-mass objects surrounded by disks. The results will be published by The Astrophysical Journal.

Three of the four objects discovered by these researchers are quite

No content in this section.

Established in June of 2016 with a generous gift of $50,000 from Marilyn Fogel and Christopher Swarth, the Marilyn Fogel Endowed Fund for Internships will provide support for “very young budding scientists” who wish to “spend a summer getting their feet wet in research for the very first time.”  The income from this endowed fund will enable high school students and undergraduates to conduct mentored internships at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory and Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, DC starting in the summer of 2017.

Marilyn Fogel’s thirty-three year career at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory (1977-2013), followed by four years at the University of California,

Andrew Steele joins the Rosetta team as a co-investigator working on the COSAC instrument aboard the Philae lander (Fred Goesmann Max Planck Institute - PI). On 12 November 2014 the Philae system will be deployed to land on the comet and begin operations. Before this, several analyses of the comet environment are scheduled from an approximate orbit of 10 km from the comet. The COSAC instrument is a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer that will measure the abundance of volatile gases and organic carbon compounds in the coma and solid samples of the comet.

Carbon plays an unparalleled role in our lives: as the element of life, as the basis of most of society’s energy, as the backbone of most new materials, and as the central focus in efforts to understand Earth’s variable and uncertain climate. Yet in spite of carbon’s importance, scientists remain largely ignorant of the physical, chemical, and biological behavior of many of Earth’s carbon-bearing systems. The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) is a global research program to transform our understanding of carbon in Earth. At its heart, DCO is a community of scientists, from biologists to physicists, geoscientists to chemists, and many others whose work crosses these disciplinary lines,

Carbon plays an unparalleled role in our lives: as the element of life, as the basis of most of society’s energy, as the backbone of most new materials, and as the central focus in efforts to understand Earth’s variable and uncertain climate. Yet in spite of carbon’s importance, scientists remain largely ignorant of the physical, chemical, and biological behavior of many of Earth’s carbon-bearing systems. The Deep Carbon Observatory is a global research program to transform our understanding of carbon in Earth. At its heart, DCO is a community of scientists, from biologists to physicists, geoscientists to chemists, and many others whose work crosses these disciplinary lines, forging a

Peter van Keken studies the thermal and chemical evolution of the Earth. In particularly he looks at the causes and consequences of plate tectonics; element modeling of mantle convection,  and the dynamics of subduction zones--locations where one tectonic plate slides under another. He also studies mantle plumes; the integration of geodynamics with seismology; geochemistry and mineral physics. He uses parallel computing and scientific visualization in this work.

He received his BS and Ph D from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands. Prior to joining Carnegie he was on the faculty of the University of Michigan.

Peter Driscoll studies the evolution of Earth’s core and magnetic field including magnetic pole reversal. Over the last 20 million or so years, the north and south magnetic poles on Earth have reversed about every 200,000, to 300,000 years and is now long overdue. He also investigates the Earth’s inner core structure; core-mantle coupling; tectonic-volatile cycling; orbital migration—how Earth’s orbit moves—and tidal dissipation—the dissipation of tidal forces between two closely orbiting bodies. He is also interested in planetary interiors, dynamos, upper planetary atmospheres and exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars. He uses large-scale numerical simulations in much of his research

Andrew Newman works in several areas in extragalactic astronomy, including the distribution of dark matter--the mysterious, invisible  matter that makes up most of the universe--on galaxies, the evolution of the structure and dynamics of massive early galaxies including dwarf galaxies, ellipticals and cluster. He uses tools such as gravitational lensing, stellar dynamics, and stellar population synthesis from data gathered from the Magellan, Keck, Palomar, and Hubble telescopes.

Newman received his AB in physics and mathematics from the Washington University in St. Louis, and his MS and Ph D in astrophysics from Caltech. Before becomming a staff astronomer in 2015, he was a

Gwen Rudie studies the chemical and physical properties of very distant, so-called  high-redshift galaxies and their surrounding circumgalactic medium. She is primarily an observational astronomer working on the analysis and interpretation of high-resolution spectroscopy of high-redshift Quasi Stellar Objects and low to medium-resolution near-infrared and optical spectroscopy of high-redshift galaxies. She is interested in understanding the intergalactic medium as a tool for understanding galaxy evolution and the physical properties of very distant galaxies such as the composition of stars and their star formation rates

Rudie received her AB from Dartmouth College and her Ph D