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A Research Ship Is Hunting Meteorite Fragments Off the Coast of Washington

The research ship E/V Nautilus is combing through samples and sediment hoping to recover the first space rock from the ocean floor

Marc Fries examines a magnetic board looking for iron particles recovered from the sea floor. (E/V Nautilus)
smithsonian.com

On March 7, the largest meteor to fall on the United States in many years hurtled into the atmosphere along the Pacific Coast, exploding in a fireball and raining two tons of material over NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, 16 miles off the coast of Washington State. Now, reports Sandi Doughton at The Seattle Times, researchers are trying to recover bits of the meteorite, and if successful, it will be the first time a chunk of space rock has been retrieved from the ocean floor.

The search effort is the brainchild of Marc Fries, NASA curator of cosmic dust, who has set up many meteorite hunts in the past. Even though very few people witnessed the fall of the meteorite, Fries was able to pinpoint its trajectory using weather radar. Based on the signals it produced, he estimates the rock was the size of a golf cart before it broke into chunks—including one ten-pounder the size of a brick—and spread over a .38-square-mile swath of the seafloor.

Getting to those chunks, however, is a different story. Luckily for Fries, the exploration ship E/V Nautilus, run by the Ocean Exploration Trust, was scheduled for a mission nearby to map an area known as the Cascadia Margin, and was available to look for the space rock for a day. Yesterday, the ship began mapping and sampling the search zone, looking for bits of the meteorite.

Mark Kaufman at Mashable reports the ship first scanned the area using sonar to pick up any signs of the iron-rich meteorites on the seabed before deploying remote operated vehicles (ROVs) outfitted with sample return scoops, cameras and a magnetic wand to pick up bits of the iron-rich rock from the sediment. While finding a big chunk of meteorite would be ideal, recovering even crumbs from the rock would be a triumph, since underwater work is so difficult. “The goal is to find whatever we can,” Nicole Raineault, expedition leader, tells Kaufman. “It’s a great opportunity for us because it’s such an interesting, pure exploration type mission,” she tells Doughton.

Now, the team onboard the ship is sifting through their samples, looking for evidence of the meteorite and are currently livestreaming the results. According to a press release, any meteorite bits found will be sent to the Smithsonian to become part of its meteorite collection.

While recovering a piece of meteorite from hundreds of feet under the waves would be a scientific coup in and of itself, this meteorite could yield useful data if researchers can determine its composition. Knowing what types of meteors tend to make it all the way to the Earth’s surface and which burn up in the atmosphere can help researchers understand which objects whizzing near our planet are dangerous and which will flame out. “It will be important for us to know what to expect to hit the ground in the future,” Fries tells Kaufman.

This isn’t the first time Fries has used radar to direct searchers to a fallen star. In 2012, radar signals indicated a meteorite had landed in Sacramento, California. He was able to direct people via phone to a parking lot where they recovered the fragments. Hopefully his directions were just as good this time around.

This isn’t the only meteorite to launch a scavenger hunt this year. In January, a fireball was spotted over Michigan, setting off a frenzied meteorite hunt in Hamburg Township, which resulted in the discovery of several small fragments.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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