West Sahara Meteorite Hunt 2014

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.

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Jarkko Kettunen Meteorite Collection © 2020