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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Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, NASA/JPL-Caltech
September 5, 2017

Washington, DC— New work from a team of Carnegie scientists (and one Carnegie alumnus) asked whether any gas giant planets could potentially orbit TRAPPIST-1 at distances greater than that of the star’s seven known planets. If gas giant planets are found in this system’s outer edges, it could help scientists understand how our own Solar System’s gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn formed.

Earlier this year, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope thrilled the world as it revealed that TRAPPIST-1, an ultra-cool dwarf star in the Aquarius constellation, was the first-known system of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star. Three of these planets are in the so-called habitable zone—

Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, Alan Boss
August 3, 2017

Washington, DC— According to one longstanding theory, our Solar System’s formation was triggered by a shock wave from an exploding supernova. The shock wave injected material from the exploding star into a neighboring cloud of dust and gas, causing it to collapse in on itself and form the Sun and its surrounding planets.

New work from Carnegie’s Alan Boss offers fresh evidence supporting this theory, modeling the Solar System’s formation beyond the initial cloud collapse and into the intermediate stages of star formation. It is published by The Astrophysical Journal.

One very important constraint for testing theories of Solar System formation is meteorite chemistry.

Carnegie Science, Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, RRUFF
August 1, 2017

Washington, DC—Applying big data analysis to mineralogy offers a way to predict minerals missing from those known to science, as well as where to find new deposits, according to a groundbreaking study.

In a paper published by American Mineralogist, scientists report the first application to mineralogy of network theory (best known for analysis of e.g. the spread of disease, terrorist networks, or Facebook connections).

The results, they say, pioneer a potential way to reveal mineral diversity and distribution worldwide, their evolution through deep time, new trends, and new deposits of valuable minerals such as gold or copper.

Led by Shaunna Morrison of the Deep

July 20, 2017

Several of our geochemistry, cosmochemistry, and astrobiology experts at Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and Geophysical Laboratory study the Moon—how it formed and the source of its water and minerals. For Moon day, we're taking a look back at some of our favorite Carnegie Moon news from the past few years. Take a look! 

Research may solve lunar fire fountain mystery

Tiny beads of volcanic glass found on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions are a sign that fire fountain eruptions took place on the Moon’s surface. Now, scientists from Brown University and the Carnegie Institution for Science have identified the volatile gas that drove those eruptions.   MORE

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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,

Guillermo Blanc wants to understand the processes by which galaxies form and evolve over the course of the history of the universe. He studies local galaxies in the “present day” universe as well as very distant and therefore older galaxies to observe the early epochs of galaxy evolution. Blanc conducts a series of research projects on the properties of young and distant galaxies, the large-scale structure of the universe, the nature of Dark Energy—the mysterious repulsive force, the process of star formation at galactic scales, and the measurement of chemical abundances in galaxies.

To conduct this work, he takes a multi-wavelength approach including observations in the UV,

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