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

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April 23, 2018

Washington, DC—A team of researchers including Carnegie’s Bob Hazen is using network analysis techniques—made popular through social media applications—to find patterns in Earth’s natural history, as detailed in a paper published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 

By using network analysis to search for communities of marine life in the fossil records of the Paleobiology Database, the team—including researchers at Harvard University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—was able to quantify the ecological impacts of major events like mass extinctions. Their work may help humanity anticipate the consequences of a “sixth mass extinction,” which the rate of species

Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, Bradley Peters
February 27, 2018

Washington, DC—Plumes of hot magma from the volcanic hotspot that formed Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean rise from an unusually primitive source deep beneath the Earth’s surface, according to new work in Nature from Carnegie’s Bradley Peters, Richard Carlson, and Mary Horan along with James Day of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Réunion marks the present-day location of the hotspot that 66 million years ago erupted the Deccan Traps flood basalts, which cover most of India and may have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Flood basalts and other hotspot lavas are thought to originate from different portions of Earth’s deep interior than most volcanoes at

Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, Miki Nakajima and Dave Stevenson
February 26, 2018

Washington, DC—It’s amazing what a difference a little water can make.

The Moon formed between about 4.4 and 4.5 billion years ago when an object collided with the still-forming proto-Earth. This impact created a hot and partially vaporized disk of material that rotated around the baby planet, eventually cooling and accreting into the Moon.

For years, scientists thought that in the aftermath of the collision hydrogen dissociated from water molecules and it and other elements that have low boiling temperatures, so-called “volatile elements,” escaped from the disk and were lost to space. This would lead to a dry and volatile element-depleted Moon, which seemed to be

Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, courtesy of NASA/JPL, slightly modified by Jonathan Gagné.
February 26, 2018

Washington, DC— Brown dwarfs, the larger cousins of giant planets, undergo atmospheric changes from cloudy to cloudless as they age and cool. A team of astronomers led by Carnegie’s Jonathan Gagné measured for the first time the temperature at which this shift happens in young brown dwarfs. Their findings, published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters, may help them better understand how gas giant planets like our own Solar System’s Jupiter evolved.

Brown dwarfs are too small to sustain the hydrogen fusion process that fuels stars and allows them to remain hot and bright for a long time. After formation, brown dwarfs slowly cool down and contract over time—at some point shifting

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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,


Following Andrew Carnegie’s founding encouragement of liberal discovery-driven research, the Carnegie Institution for Science offers its scientists a new resource for pursuing bold ideas.

Carnegie Science Venture grants are internal awards of up to $100,000 that are intended to foster entirely new directions of research by teams of scientists that ignore departmental boundaries. Up to six adventurous investigations may be funded each year. The period of the award is two years,

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,

Staff member Nick Konidaris joined Carnegie in October 2017. He works on a variety of new optical instrumentation projects in astronomy. He  recently began working on a new development platform for the 40-inch Swope telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory. It is called the Rapid Response Swope Spectrograph and Imager (R2S2I). When operational, it will be a workhorse instrument and development platform.

Prior to Carnegie, he was director of product management at Kairos Aerospace in Mountain View, CA. Konidaris received a B.S. in physics from Carnegie Mellon University, and conducted coursework in electrical engineering before obtaining a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the

Experimental petrologist Michael Walter became director of the Geophysical Laboratory beginning April 1, 2018. His recent research has focused on the period early in Earth’s history, shortly after the planet accreted from the cloud of gas and dust surrounding our young Sun, when the mantle and the core first separated into distinct layers. Current topics of investigation also include the structure and properties of various compounds under the extreme pressures and temperatures found deep inside the planet, and information about the pressure, temperature, and chemical conditions of the mantle that can be gleaned from mineral impurities preserved inside diamonds.

Walter had been at

Guoyin Shen's research interests lie in the quest to establish and to examine models for explaining and controlling the behavior of materials under extreme conditions. His research activities include investigation of phase transformations and melting lines in molecular solids, oxides and metals; polyamorphism in liquids and amorphous materials; new states of matter and their emergent properties under extreme conditions; and the development of enabling high-pressure synchrotron techniques for advancing compression science. 

He obtained a Ph.D. in mineral physics from Uppsala University, Sweden in 1994 and a B.S. in geochemistry from Zhejiang University, China in 1982. For more

Leopoldo Infante became the director of the Las Campanas Observatory on July 31, 2017.

Since 2009, Infante has been the founder and director of the Centre for Astro-Engineering at the Chilean university. He joined PUC as an assistant professor in 1990 and has been a full professor since 2006. He was one of the creators of PUC’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and served as its director from 2000 to 2006. He also established the Chilean Astronomical Society (SOCHIAS) and served as its president from 2009 to 2010.

Infante received his B.Sc. in physics at PUC. He then acquired a MSc. and Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the University of Victoria in Canada.