Researchers at Lawrence Livermore use extraterrestrial materials and state-of-the-art equipment to unravel the history of the solar system.

Answering fundamental questions

Cosmochemistry is the study of extraterrestrial materials—samples returned by space flight missions as well as meteorites and their components—with the goal of understanding the origin and evolution of the solar system and our cosmic neighborhood. The research includes the full history of the solar system, from before the protoplanetary disk began to coalesce and the Sun formed, up until present.

Decades of funding and research have helped establish cosmochemistry research at Livermore, which is one of the world’s foremost centers of research on the origin and evolution of the solar system. Here, we look to answer big questions:

  • How did the Sun and our solar system form, and how long did this take?
  • What types of stars and what materials from these stars contributed to the birth environment of the solar system?
  • How and when do planets form cores, mantles, crusts, and atmospheres?
  • How did Earth become habitable, and where did its water come from?
  • What is the impact history of the solar system?
  • Is there something unique about the solar system compared to extrasolar planetary systems that enabled life to develop here?

Cosmochemistry work at LLNL falls into several disciplines:

Early solar system processes that investigate the origin and evolution of the first solid matter

Primordial planetary geology that is concerned with the period of time between accretion and formation of planetary cores, mantles, crusts, and atmospheres

Geologic evolution of differentiated bodies until the present

Nucleosynthetic processes contributing to the galactic abundances of the elements

Leveraging state-of-the-art equipment

Livermore’s cosmochemistry research is facilitated by world-class onsite capabilities, including several forms of mass spectrometry, such as inductively coupled plasma, thermal ionization, noble gas, resonance ionization, and secondary ion mass spectrometry. This includes a nanometer-scale secondary ion mass spectrometer (nanoSIMS)—one of less than two dozen such instruments in the world—that permits us to measure isotopic variations that exist at the nanoscale.

In addition to measuring inherent isotopic variation to study sample provenance, chronology is a major thrust of our research at LLNL. Radioactive decay of isotopes from a variety of elements provides the potential to determine the age of a material anywhere from months to billions of years old. By measuring the abundances of parent and daughter isotopes in samples with Livermore’s extremely accurate mass spectrometers, we can measure the age of planetary and meteoritic materials with incredible precision, even with limited amounts of materials. We have dated objects such as the first solids to form in the solar system, tiny bits of cometary material collected during NASA’s Stardust mission, meteorites that formed beyond the orbit of Jupiter, rocks ejected from Mars by violent impacts, and lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions.

Our researchers are applying these techniques to material collected on asteroid return missions to gain comprehensive insight into what type of material the solar system formed from and how it has evolved since its formation. Livermore was awarded samples from the asteroid Ryugu (Hayabusa2 mission, landed December 2020) and the asteroid Bennu (OSRIS-Rex mission, landing September 2023).

Lars Borg holds the sample wheel of a thermal ionization mass spectrometry system, which the cosmochemistry team uses to measure isotope ratios.

Using these measurement tools and techniques, we have uncovered:

Techniques and tools serving a dual purpose

The analytical, methodological, and philosophical overlap with cosmochemistry and nuclear forensics allows us to answer fundamental research questions while contributing to the Laboratory’s security missions. Nuclear forensics is central to these missions, and cosmochemical work has been key to developing novel techniques to measure isotopes that can provide clues to the origin of illicit nuclear materials that might be diverted for use in weapons of mass destruction. In fact, many of the same techniques used for cosmochemistry research also apply to constraining the origins of nuclear forensics samples.

Video library


Name Title Discipline


Name Department Institution
James Bryson Department of Earth Sciences Oxford University
Richard Carlson Department of Terrestrial Magnetism Carnegie Institute, Washington
James Connelly   University of Copenhagen
Thorsten Kleine   Max Planck Institute
Charles Shearer Institute of Meteoritics University of New Mexico
Meenakshi Wadhwa Department of Earth and Space Exploration Arizona State University
Manavi Jadhav Department of Physics University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Edward Young Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences University of California, Los Angeles
Reto Trappitsch School of Physics Brandeis University
Chelsea Willett   International Atomic Energy Agency

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