Fragments of a meteorite, spotted before entering the atmosphere, have been recovered from a remote area of Botswana – making for the second time in history this has been achieved.
Named 2018 LA, the meteorite scattered over a wide area in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve and was recovered by Alexander Proyer, professor of petrology, and Fulvio Franchi, a senior lecturer, from the Botswana International University of Science and Technology.
In an interview published on The Conversation the two academics said this was only the second time a fragment has recovered from a meteorite seen before it entered the atmosphere.
The asteroid was first detected by a network of observatories – the NASA’s Planetary Defence network – that searches for near-earth objects. Such monitoring for objects is a relatively recent development.
“Finding a fresh one is rare but what makes this case really sensational, is not the fall itself but the fact that we knew it was coming. Usually, people are taken by surprise, seeing a flash of light or fireball when the asteroid enters the atmosphere. But this one was observed in space, eight hours before it collided with Earth,” said Poyer in the interview.
According to Proyer, this was the very same asteroid that was caught on security footage on 02 June.
“According to eye-witness reports from a camp relatively close to the fall area it made the night bright as day and gave some thundering and shot-like noises that made the ground tremble. There was more security camera material from Maun and Rakops of that day, the 2nd of June, that helped narrow down the search area,” said Proyer.
The meteorite exploded 27 kilometres above ground, scattering over a wide area.
To retrieve the fragments the researchers needed special permits to enter the reserve, as well as permission to gather it.
“You cannot just pick up a meteorite and own it –- at least not legally. Meteorites are considered relics by law and are to be handed over to the National Museum,” said Franchi.
The team was also chaperoned by park rangers for protection, walking for days in the territory of lions and elephants, snakes and scorpions.
“An unexpected challenge was to have millions of other objects looking similar to a typically dark meteorite at first sight: pieces of burnt wood (from bushfires) or animal dung.”
The composition of the recovered fragments could give scientists a glimpse into the history of our solar system.
“We can consider this event as a free-of-charge delivery of material from space that would otherwise require a highly expensive space mission to recover,” said Franchi.
The study could help with the future detection of larger, rogue asteroids, possibly on a collision course with Earth; details of the material composition of the meteorite could help computer programmes predict the trajectory of other suck rocks – and what would happen if we tried to blow them up using missiles.
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