The Mad Scramble to Claim the World's Most Coveted Meteorite

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Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
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The Mad Scramble to Claim the World's Most Coveted Meteorite
17 Dec 2018

Selected excepts from the this very long and interesting article:

ON THE MORNING of September 15, 2007, station I08BO—an infrasound monitoring post for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty near La Paz, Bolivia—picked up a series of atmospheric vibrations. It was an explosion at very high altitude, and there was something streaking across the sky, heading southwest at 27,000 mph.

A FEW MINUTES later, at about 11:45 am, a brilliant fireball flashed over Carancas, a tiny village at 12,000 feet in Peru’s remote altiplano, a high plain bounded by the Andes. For those on the ground, this celestial visitor was the brightest thing anyone had ever seen in the sky.

When the trio arrived at the crater, they saw a makeshift fence of wire mesh on wooden stakes, with a single guard in his bowler and brown shawl. Farmer approached the guard while Ward hung back. Karl hung farther back, smoked, and said little.

The guard motioned for Farmer to go inside the fence. He waved Ward and Karl over, and they all walked up the incline and stood at the edge of a fresh meteorite crater for the first time in their lives. Ward looked at the ejecta layer, a spread of clay and mud and pulverized asteroid that fanned out for 400 yards, mostly on one side, showing the angle of impact, and thought: “Oh my God, this thing is for real.”

Karl and Farmer were equally excited. They found a few fragments and recognized the veins streaking the surface that memorialized the rock’s fiery journey. The samples were shot through with little bubbles of preplanetary dust, identifying this landfall definitively as a chondrite. They knew that what they were seeing was scientifically shocking. Planetary geologists had been saying that a chondrite crater was impossible, and yet here they were, looking at it—the only known impact of its kind in recorded history.

“No amount of money can replace the feeling of finding a rock that was in space two days ago,” Ward says. “It’s indescribable.”

Ward started wandering the edges of the crater with a metal detector, while Karl searched the debris field. As usual, Ward was the first to find a small fragment, but as soon as he held it up a grandmotherly local woman who had appeared nearby pointed at it, as if she wanted a closer look, and when he handed it over she slid it into her skirt and ran away. But most of the Aymara were happy to sell the gringos fragments they’d collected. Each piece was worth a little money, but the real prize was at the bottom of that crater.

Or so the hunters hoped: The meteorite must have been many metric tons, but they couldn’t see it because of the water. Ward climbed down the crater for a better look. Because of the altitude—the plain stands 12,550 feet above sea level—he was having trouble breathing and chewed coca leaves, as the locals did, to acclimate. Even at the water line he saw nothing; the surface was an opaque green murk. This crater was 20 feet deep in places, and Ward quickly guesstimated the volume of water. “We’re going to need some real equipment to pump this dry,” he said.

But they had to move fast. Chondrite is porous, and depending on the composition it’s liable to disintegrate in water. They needed to pump out the pit as soon as possible. Luckily, Mayor Trujillo had approached them earlier in the day. He didn’t seem worried that the crater posed any danger, but he still had questions. The government hadn’t reassured the locals. “We can help dispel the fears,” Farmer said, “and share whatever the rock is worth.” Trujillo said that he was open to this idea, but his responsibility was to present their offer to the town. There would have to be transparency. “Come to the casa comunal tomorrow morning,” Trujillo said. They would have to convince the Aymara.

A heavy-duty pump roared to life. It had been brought in by flatbed truck from Desaguadero. The machinery was massive, loud, and smelled like diesel, but within a few minutes it was already lowering the water line in the crater. Farmer and Ward were watching from just outside the fence and could barely contain their excitement: If there was a main mass still intact down there, they were about to set eyes on an incredible find.

Even though the Americans agreed to make sure the locals were fairly paid for anything found, local corruption and greed, a great part of this long article's story, caused them to be chased away, barely escaping the country which resulted in:

In Carancas, the crater was never drained. It remained full of water, its contents unexplored. The rainy season wore down some of the impact furrows, softened its shape. The locals stopped feeling sick, and la contaminación prompted health officials to do tests that confirmed the presence of arsenic in the water table, potentially saving lives. Peter Schultz, the planetary astrogeologist, visited the site to properly study the impact. The chondrite, he theorized, could have slipped through the atmosphere by coming apart and reshaping itself into a narrow projectile. He cowrote papers, updated models. If indeed chondrites can arrive intact, what fell in Carancas portended a higher danger of deadly cosmic collisions, since most meteorites are chondrites and they were previously thought to carry less risk. Maybe everyone was right to be afraid of it.

The Aymara went back to tending sheep, although bitterness remained. Some locals blame outsiders for bringing the authorities around. Some thought the gringos stole the rock. Some still believed it was just an antahualla, the scorpion spirit from the mountains. The police showed up to guard the crater after the gringos left, but what remained of the rock had almost certainly dissolved in the water. It may have already been gone when the meteorite hunters arrived in the town. Trujillo never got his museum. Nearby were concrete pilings, the beginnings of a structure never built. Trujillo had hoped the crater would invigorate the area, but now it’s just a strange feature of the landscape. And soon that too will be gone. A few more seasons of rain and the land will be flat again.


One of the fragments they did find outside the crater before they were forced to flee:


For anyone interested in meteorite hunting, read this book mentioned in this article:

Nininger’s many books about his travels helped create popular interest in finding meteorites. It was one of these books — Find a Falling Star — that the 13-year-old Ward discovered in the science stacks at the Prescott library the day after he saw that fireball in the western sky. Nininger’s journeys are exciting in their hardships and discoveries: wayfaring through Mexico in 1929, tracking down the “long lost” Huizopa specimen, sleuthing eyewitness accounts across continents. Ward was hooked; he borrowed the book a dozen times, worrying the pages. When he wasn’t roping cattle or gunsmithing with his father, Ward spent his free time searching for rocks among the sagebrush and saguaros.