ROBERT HUTCHISON ; Authority on Meteorites

Article excerpt

Robert Hutchison spent the greater part of his scientific career at the Natural History Museum in London. He was Head of the Cosmic Mineralogy Research Programme, and responsible for the national meteorite collection, one of the most significant meteorite collections in the world.

He joined the British Museum (Natural History) - as it was then formally called - in 1969, to work in the Department of Mineralogy. In later years, he would joke that 1969 was the most significant year in the history of research into extraterrestrial materials: Neil Armstrong returned the first Apollo samples to Earth; two unusual meteorites were observed to fall; the first group of Antarctic meteorites was discovered - and he became involved with the study of meteorites.

Hutchison was active in several fields within meteoritics. Among his most significant contributions was recognising the young age of the Nakhla meteorite (which led to the whole concept of meteorites from Mars), and then going on to detect hydrated minerals in Martian and asteroidal meteorites, allowing deductions to be made concerning water flow on planetary bodies.

His main interest, though, was the detailed study of the composition of one particular component of stony meteorites:chondrules. These are millimetre-sized, generally spherical objects made mainly from iron-magnesium silicates, with an age that implies they were one of the earliest objects formed as the Sun and planets grew.

The origin and evolution of chondrules is an issue that has been hotly debated ever since meteorites became a subject of serious study, and Hutchison was at the forefront of the party that argued for production of the materials in a planetary, rather than a nebular, setting. For much of his career, Hutchison's conclusions on this issue were not accepted, but, over the past few years, the tide of opinion was beginning to change.

Almost as a sideline, Hutchison discovered a large igneous clast inside one particular meteorite that had an age a few million years older than expected. The existence of this once-molten clast inside an unmelted meteorite is a significant piece of evidence used to infer the timing of processes that built and shaped the Solar System.

Inadditiontohisownwork,BobHutchison (or Hutch, as he was often known) facilitated 30 years of amazingly diverse investigations by aspiring meteoriticists, not just from the UK but on a worldwide scale, as well as building up a small but excellent research group within the Natural History Museum. …