It “would have been lost if we’d gotten there any later.”
Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old, which is really, really old! It is hard to imagine anything being around for that long, but in the grand scheme of things, Earth is actually quite young. Amazingly, on New Year’s Eve, a 1.6 kilogram meteorite that is older than Earth was recovered in the southern Australian outback.
The meteorite was recovered as a result of a new camera network, called the Desert Fireball Network, consisting of 32 remote camera observatories stationed across the Australian outback.
Team leader and planetary geologist, Professor Phil Bland, hand-dug the meteorite from a 42-centimeter-deep hole in a remote section of a lake bed just hours before the arrival of heavy rains that would have erased all trace of the fall site. “It was an amazing team effort — we got there by the skin of our teeth,” Bland said in a press release.
The fall of the meteorite was not only captured by the Desert Fireball Network cameras stationed at William Creek, Mount Barry, Billa Kalina and Wilpoorina, but it was also witnessed by a number of locals in the William Creek and Marree areas. The image below shows a glimpse of the meteor as it fell to Earth.
photo credit: Curtin University/Desert Fireball Network. Photo has been cropped.
The team immediately started image analysis, triangulation and dynamic calculations to determine that the meteorite crashed into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. Once the location was determined, a recovery mission was planned.
The mission involved an aerial spotter (piloted by Trevor Wright), a remotely operated drone, two searchers on the lake’s surface, and guidance around the area by local Arabana men, Dean Stuart and Dave Strangways. “The fact we have managed to retrieve the meteorite at all is remarkable,” said mechatronic engineer, Dr. Jonathan Paxman. “Our people worked around the clock to reduce the data, enabling rapid recovery of something that would have been lost if we’d gotten there any later.”
The team found the meteorite embedded in thick, salt lake wet mud because rain had fallen between the time of impact and recovery. The team had to work fast to recover the meteorite because rainfall was starting to fill Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre with water.
Bland said the meteorite is more than likely a chondrite or stony meteorite — material created during the early formation of the Solar System more than 4.5 billion years ago. “This meteorite is of special significance as the camera observations used to calculate the fall positions have also enabled the solar system orbit of the meteorite to be calculated, giving important contextual information for future study.”
Bland told ABC News that the meteorite “came to us from beyond the orbit of Mars, so in between Mars and Jupiter,” adding that “[i]t is older than the Earth itself.”
Not only will the discovery add to the understanding of the evolution of the solar system, it emphasizes the importance of the Desert Fireball Network team. “It demonstrates beyond doubt that this giant machine that we’ve built really works. We’ve got a lot more rocks on the ground. This recovery will be the first of many — and every one of those meteorites will give us a unique window into the formation of the Solar System.”
Honestly, I can’t imagine a better New Year’s Eve than searching and digging for an ancient meteorite.