Massive Meteorite Discovered In China; New Moon Found Around Pluto

The July 19, 2011 front page of the online newspaper China Daily shows researchers measuring the newly-found ~25 ton meteorite in Xinjiang. Click to read and see more photos. Credit: Xinhua/China Daily

A stony-iron meteorite weighing an estimated 25 tons has been found in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of western China. It might even turn out to be heavier than that, since part of it’s buried in the ground.

Local people have known about the space rock for some time, since scientists found a dozen signatures, some going back to 1980, scratched into its surface.

Meteorite expert Zhang Baolin of the Beijing Planetarium and his crew finally reached the meteorite after an arduous trek across streams, mountains and desert  at 2 p.m. local time on July 14. Part of the journey involved traveling by horse and camel.

The meteorite, located on a 9,500-ft. high mountaintop, stood out clearly among the pale granite rocks of the ancient glacial landscape. According to Baolin, it measures 7.2 feet long with about 4 feet high. The party sawed off a piece and sent it back to Beijing to be analyzed. Plans call for protecting the celestial treasure and further research.

If you’d like to read more, here’s a English translation of the article via Google translator. As with all machine translations, some things don’t sound right, but you’ll get the idea of what’s being said. Their excitement certainly shows.

The Hoba meteorite near Grootfontein, Namibia is the largest-known and most massive meteorite found on Earth. It was discovered by accident when a farmer hit it with his plow. Credit: Wikipedia

It’ll be interesting to see if the new meteorite will knock China’s largest and the 4th largest meteorite found on Earth – the Armanty iron – out of first place. Armanty was also found in Xinjiang in 1898 and weighs 28 tons. While that’s definitely a possibility, it appears that the Hoba meteorite will still reign supreme as the largest meteorite ever found on Earth. It’s located in Namibia, Africa, and at 60 tons, was so heavy, it was simply left in the ground. Like Armanty, Hoba is an iron-nickel meteorite.

After sitting for years in a hole, the site has been developed by the Namibian government into a tourist center. Lined with concentric stone benches, it looks like a great place to sit down and contemplate just how this monster landed on our planet an estimated 80,000 years ago. Oddly, it left no crater. That may have been due to its flat shape and low angle of entry.

Meteorite hunter Tim Heitz feels the cosmic joy of sitting on top of the second largest meteorite in the world, a 37-ton Campo del Cielo. Credit and copyright: Tim Heitz

After Hoba, the next largest space rock is a 37-ton specimen of the Campo del Cielo iron meteorite in Argentina. This one fell within human memory some 4,000-5,000 years ago. Campo del Cielo, which means ‘Field of the Sky’, came to the attention of the Spaniards in 1576. Local Indian peoples used pieces of it for their weapons, claiming that the huge ‘rock’ had fallen from the sky. They were right.

Thousands of ‘Campos’, as they’re called, have been discovered since. They’re spread over many miles of terrain that contain the remains of at least a dozen impact craters. Over the past few years, many have been and continue to be offered on auction sites like eBay for very reasonable prices.

Composed of an iron and nickel mix, Campos, like other metal meteorites, feel heavy in the hand and look the way many expect a meteorite to appear. You might be surprised however to learn that the vast majority – 82% – of meteorites seen to fall are chondrites or stony meteorites. Irons only account for about 6% of falls. Stony meteorites are also the most commonly found lying around in the hot deserts of Africa and the Middle East as well as the icy plains of Antarctica.

The Ahnighito meteorite and two other related fragments are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Credit: Fermion/Wiki

The largest meteorite in the U.S. resides in the American Museum of Natural History. Called the Cape York (Greenland) iron or Ahnighito, it weighs 34 tons and was transported from Greenland to New York in 1897 by Arctic explorer Robert Peary. You can go right up to it and touch it. Like Campo del Cielo, the local Inuit people once cut off metal from it to use for tools and harpoons. To learn more about the largest meteorites and see more photos, please click HERE.

This composite of two Hubble images shows Pluto's moons in motion, including P4, the new discovery. Credit: NASA/ESA

In other news, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope just announced the discovery of a new moon around Pluto with the provisional designation of S/2011 (134340) or simply ‘P4’. That makes four Plutonian satellites! Charon, Nix and Hydra are its other moons. The new object’s exact diameter will require more observations, but it’s either 8.7 or 25 miles across. Either way, it extremely faint at magnitude 26. You’d need at least a 200-inch telescope to see it. Maybe bigger.

You can read the formal discovery announcement HERE. With NASA’s Horizons spacecraft due to fly by Pluto and its moons in July 2015, we hopefully won’t have to wait long for a better look.

7 Responses

  1. Jon

    Pluto always was and always will be the 9th planet to me especially now more moons have been discovered around it. Looking forward to the pluto express images but I don’t understand why more photo time wasn’t given over to the neptune system which is barely photographed itself,after all its a long way to go.Must be really difficult to do those long exposures moving at such speed-twisting that camera so slowly,I heard that its the fastest man made space object.

    1. astrobob

      New Horizons flew near Jupiter for a gravity assist to send it onward to Pluto. Sending it past Neptune would have taken it far out of the way of Pluto. The Voyager 2 spacecraft took advantage of a somewhat rare planetary lineup to use gravity assists from close encounters with Jupiter and Saturn to send it on to Uranus and Neptune.

      1. Think I was misinformed from the net,should have guessed the alignment would have been highly unlikely,like u say voyager2 took advantage of the last rare planetary alignment.Think they were just testing the camera on Neptune and it looks v far away 🙂

  2. thomas s

    not that my opinion counts for much, but I agree with Jon. Pluto s/b considered a planet. a lot of good information about large meteorites. I didn’t know that they were as numerous as they are. thanks for this post.

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