West Sahara Meteorite Hunt 2014


Six months ago I received an email from my friend Tomasz Jakubowski, a Polish meteorite researcher and managing editor of the Meteorites journal, which specialises in research publications. His message was short: “I’ve begun considering the trip. Would you like to come along?” We had been talking for a long time about going on a trip to hunt meteorites. After the initial rush of enthusiasm, I began racking my brain about how to broach the subject at home. Whether due to my lucky stars or not, my wife would give me permission to embark on the journey.

Tomek and I would be accompanied by Jan Woreczko, who on previous expeditions with Tomek had found hundreds of meteorites. Both were familiar with many deserts and types of conditions. After considering our options, we decided to go to Morocco and the Western Sahara. The reason was obvious: nearly all meteorites found in the Sahara pass through Morocco, whether found by the Bedouin in the restless northern parts of Mali, in Mauretania or in the Algerian borderlands. Apart from hunting for meteorites, we might also meet local meteorite dealers.

None of us had any previous experience of the Western Sahara. When I asked about it, Tomek just retorted “It’s just a desert, they’re all alike.” However, being a doctor of geology, he explained that, judging by satellite images, the area seemed promising. There would be several flat rocky plains suitable for hunting that floods had not touched for millennia. There would be no sand or dunes, which for a meteorite hunter was a good thing, because meteorites get buried in sand and sand makes driving extremely difficult.

So, on Thursday, 6 March 2014, I hoisted my backpack and headed for Helsinki Airport from where I would fly to Warsaw to meet the Poles. From Warsaw we would fly to Agadir, and from there take a jeep straight to the Western Sahara. In the weeks preceding the trip, we had made a thorough inventory of our equipment. Woreczko and Tomek had drawn up a detailed day-by-day itinerary, and Jan had assembled satellite images. He combined them with the GPS data of previously discovered meteorites, as well as the locations of minefields laid out during the military conflict between Morocco and Mauretania in the early 1980s. After travelling for 27 hours without interruption, we arrived in the village of Tarfaya about a hundred kilometres north of El-Aaiún, the unofficial capital of the Western Sahara. We found lodgings on the outskirts of the village and, exhausted, hit the sack. Tomorrow we would be in the desert.

We woke up early in the morning and drank Bedouin tea, which became a habit we indulged in whenever we could. The tea is strong, with big lumps of sugar and herbs. One of the Bedouin we met said it is the only way to keep alert in the heat when you are travelling across a monotonous desert. In the morning, we asked locals about meteorites. Because these communities are small and everyone knows everyone else, asking often gets you what you need. An old man was summoned who told us that his relatives in Tissint had found meteorites, but we were already familiar with these famous Martian meteorites. In his broken English, the old man wished us well on our journey. In actual fact, he said: Don’t die.

We began driving towards Bou Craa, the area where we would begin our hunt. When you search for meteorites, you drive along at about 20 km per hour and try to spot from the car. At 20 km per hour you can still scan the terrain in detail, and it enables you to cover a maximum area in the course of one hour. The windows should be rolled down and you should not wear sunglasses. Visual observation is so sensitive that you can’t allow any obstacles between your eye and the terrain. Most meteorites are matte black. After prolonged exposure in the desert, they acquire a patina and start blending into the ground. Flintstones that have a slightly bluish hue can easily be mistaken for totally black meteorites if you use sunglasses we simple called them fake’s.

Driving in the desert, you must try to keep the sun at your back at all times. This turns daily hunts into very big curves. In the morning you drive south-west and west, at midday you turn towards the north and in the evening you drive east, this simple rule is sometimes forgotten by hunters. Keeping the sun at your back ensures that the shadows in front of the car are as short as possible. From a distance, a black shadow easily looks like a meteorite. The optimal terrain for meteorite hunting is of course a light-coloured, finely grained, flat desert. Unfortunately not very many of these exist. Jan and Tomek told me that several such deserts can be found in Arabian Peninsula, where countless meteorites have been discovered since 1954.

From the above description of the search method, you can tell that you need a measure of madness to hunt for meteorites. As the minutes turn into hours and days, you start wondering about the point of the entire venture. During the first days of the hunt we scanned the desert and found hundreds of camel turds and blackened tin cans that looked strikingly like meteorites from a distance. Gradually, we learned to distinguish from the mere shape whether the object was camel poo, a partially buried tin can or a fragment of a grenade or bomb from the war. We tracked our progress with two GPS devices, and had two satellite phones as communication back-ups.

We inspected many sites of previous meteorite discovery on our route, but without any luck. The argument for inspecting such sites is the assumption that the meteorite may have disintegrated high up in the atmosphere, as is often the case, and many fragments may have landed in the same area. The common wisdom is that you should look for meteorites in places of previous discovery. However, when inspecting sites in the desert where meteorites have been found, you should bear in mind that not everyone reports the true location of their find, giving instead coordinates that may be a hundred kilometres off, so that they can return later to search for more fragments.

Every nightfall, we drove the car into a secluded hollow or valley, where it was hidden from prying eyes and screened from the wind, pitched our tent and heated food from tins on a camping stove. As it was spring, the temperature dropped at night to around 5–7° centigrade. In the morning, it took a quarter of an hour for the dew on the tent to dry in the wind. As you can guess, the night sky was incredibly beautiful. The white band of the Milky Way cleft the sky in two and familiar constellations were lost among countless dim stars that were prominent here in the desert. Jan, who is an astronomer by profession, lectured Tomek and me about the many wonderful things up in the starry sky. Being an astronomer, however, he of course found the view wanting. The Moon was waxing full, and in his opinion it spoiled the view.

After several days without finding anything, we moved on 11 March from Bou Craa to an area north of the town of Smara, where we headed for the site where meteorite NWA 7831 had been discovered. NWA 7831 is a so-called HED meteorite, a diogenite meteorite to be more precise. Diogenites are believed to originate from the Vesta planetoid in the asteroid belt. The spectrum of the planetoid is largely similar to that of the meteorites. It is speculated that these stone meteorites might have originated from a large collision crater on the asteroid. A long time ago, another asteroid impacted on Vesta, spewing the planetoid’s matter into space, a fragment of which finally ended on Earth as a meteorite. Scientist belive that diogenites represent a mantle rocks of Vesta while other HED types came form outer surface.

Using our GPS navigator, we drove as close to the site as possible. Arriving at a site, we usually spread out on foot to search for meteorites. After a few moments, Tomek called to us: he had found fragments of the diogenite meteorite. Now that we knew where to look, Jan and I soon gathered a pile of small fragments. I was very happy, this was the first time that I had picked up small fragments of material from space with my own two hands. Although Tomek grinned that these would not yet be reckoned to be meteorites.

After a couple of hours, we continued on our way, hoping to find a real meteorite. It is an unofficial rule of thumb that hunters should find one meteorite per 100 km of driving, provided that the desert is suitable, an untouched area not washed by water. We knew we were in the right kind of area, because we had found a few Stone Age flint arrowheads.

We spotted two Bedouin in the desert and decided to ask them if they had seen any meteorites. We began conversations by throwing a stone up in the air, and explaining when it fell down that we were looking for stones like that. We had no common language, and most of the time we could not make ourselves understood. Many of the people we met must have thought we were feeble-minded, coming to the desert to throw stones in the air. Now, however, one of the two men nodded, burrowed in his things and dug out rags wrapped around two stones. Tomek got out a loupe and a magnet, tools we all carried. I knew from the stones and, after a few seconds, from Tomek’s expression: Meteorites! We finally saw our first meteorites on the journey.

Meteorites are divided into three main categories: stone meteorites, stone-iron meteorites and iron meteorites. You use a loupe to study the structure of a piece. You usually search for chondrules, small granules (rounded) of silicate found in stone meteorites called chondrites, which comprise about 85 per cent of all meteorites. A magnet is used to check the iron content of a meteorite. Most meteorites are magnetic, except for a few rare ones. Ordinary stone meteorites are divided into three classes based on their iron content. You can get a rough idea of a stone’s class with a magnet.

While we haggled over the price, the Bedouin offered us tea and goat’s milk, as is the ancient custom in the desert. We got the first stone meteorite for 300 dirham, or about 30 euro. For the second piece, they raised the price to 400 dirham, although the meteorite itself was not as fine a specimen as the first. Yet they got a better price for the pieces from us than they would have from a Moroccan dealer.

That was the end of the desert leg of our journey, and the beginning of the second one, where we would meet Moroccan meteorite dealers and hunters. We drove to the town of Tan-Tan to meet three brothers who specialise in meteorites from Mauretania. Two of them had just returned from there, so we were excited to see what they had brought.

The world of meteorite hunters and dealers is small and everyone knows everyone else. When the brothers heard we were in the vicinity, they invited us to stay with them. As we chatted, they asked why we had not been to the southern part of Morocco, where meteorites had recently been found east of the town of Taouz.

We did not want to go there, because, prior to our journey, we had heard that a flood in the previous year had moved mines and it was dangerous to drive there. We knew that some locals had found meteorites there, but we also knew that not all of them had returned. The brothers admitted that this was so. They said that usually people drive there along a particular route and retrace their steps along the same route.

After drinking tea, we entered another room where the meteorites were. It was an incredible sight – hundreds of meteorites laid out in one room. I could not help smiling. I immediately recognised some carbonaceous chondrites found in Jbilet Winselwan in 2013, CK chondrites, fragments of the Agoudal (Imilchil) iron meteorite, and more. The reason I was able to identify them was that I had seen thousands and thousands of images of such meteorites on the Internet. It should be noted, however, that a meteorite is truly classified and identified only after a sample from it has been analysed in a laboratory and the report has been accepted by the Meteorite Nomenclature Committee, which is composed of recognised experts from all over the world.

We found some interesting meteorites. Haggling is apparently an art, and after tough negotiations we shook hands and everybody laughed. Then we took a traditional group photo with the meteorites.

Most Moroccan meteorite dealers live in the south-eastern parts of the country, so we returned to Agadir to swap our jeeps for cars. In Agadir, we met my friend Tuomas Uusheimo, a photographer. He had come there straight from a residency in Villa Karo in Benin. He had had an exhibition of meteorite photographs at Lasipalatsi Gallery in Helsinki from 10 to 26 January 2014, and was now preparing for a larger show from 29 May to 19 June 2015 at the Photographic Centre in Kotka, Finland.

The next day we drove to Zagora, our first destination on this leg of the journey. We were met there by Rachid, whom we had been corresponding with for years and who had previously supplied us with several meteorites. Rachid is a French school teacher, but he also deals and sells meteorites worldwide. Meteorites are an important source of additional income for many people.

Rachid had arranged accommodation for us, and invited us to his parents home for supper. He is a devout Muslim, and the walls of his home are decorated with quotes from the Koran. His children and wife were in another room, as is the Arab custom. We took off our shoes and stepped into the living room, where several meteorites were on display. Rachid began by showing us a small lunar meteorite, the preliminary analysis of which he had received from the US a few days earlier.

It is an indescribable feeling to hold a piece of the Moon in your hand. A few nights ago the Moon had been shining over the desert, and now it had fallen into my hand. With a laugh, Rachid said we would not believe where it had been found. He said it was found by a Bedouin friend on the spot in Tissint where the Mars meteorite had fallen in 2012. There had been 3000 people in the area looking for valuable fragments of the meteorite.

Meteorites are traditionally named after the nearest post office to the site of discovery. In this case, it was in a village called Tissint. Meteorites found in the Sahara usually carry the acronym, NWA, which stands for North West Africa, in their name, as it is often impossible to ascertain where nomads had originally discovered the meteorites. Additionally, every meteorite has an identifying number: the diogenite fragments we found have the number 7831. It indicates the position of the meteorite in the series; our fragments were from the 7831st meteorite in the group.

After several meetings, our journey ended in the town of Ouarzazate to see meteorite dealer Muhamed. His nephew was there to meet us and led us to his uncle’s house. We were greeted by a man in his fifties, with a stern eye, who had evidently been in business for a long time. We looked at meteorites, drank tea and bought a few pieces.

Finally, he invited us to view a couple of meteorites in his garage. We were tired from the trip and it was already way past midnight. When he opened the door to the garage, our weariness was instantly wiped away from our eyes and minds. It was a breathtaking sight. In the midst of rubbish, old tyres and other junk, there were enormous meteorites. The kind of pieces you might find in the collections of the British Museum, not in an untidy garage in a shady residential area in a small town. There was an achondrite weighing more than 100 kg and an intact stone meteorite of over 150 kg, quite exceptional in size. There was also half of a gigantic stone meteorite and a 50 kg fragment of an Agouldal (Imilchil) iron meteorite.

While we were still gasping and looking at the meteorites, Muhamed went upstairs to his flat and returned with a bundle. With a grin on his face, he opened it and handed us its contents for us all to hold in our hand – none other than a 2.2 kg lunar meteorite. It looked exactly what I thought the Moon looked like when I was a child. It was yellow like cheese, with countless dark lines that were created when an asteroid had hit the surface of the Moon. It was my turn to hold the meteorite in my hand. It was the perfect way to end the journey.

Jarkko Kettunen Meteorite Collection © 2018