Seeing Earth’s origin through beer-goggles

The fifth largest meteorite ever found in East Antarctica was discovered in January 2013 by an international team of meteorite hunters. Antarctica makes an ideal hunting ground for meteorite huniting because of the cold, the movement of ice – which concentrates meteorites in certain regions – and high winds, which expose them to view. Credit: International Polar Foundation

Despite all the chatter about how important oxygen is (and it is), every day we breathe in far more nitrogen. Earth’s atmosphere is composed of 78% of the stuff compared to 21% oxygen. We know that the first photosynthesizing bacteria and later, plants, bulked up the air with O2, but where did all that N come from? Beer of course!

Bear with me.

Image of an actual protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star HL Tauri. The photo was made using multiple telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) and reveal possible positions of planets forming in the dark patchy rings within the system. The newly forming Sun and planets of our own solar system may have looked like this 4.6 billion years ago. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Earth’s nitrogen, like all the goodies that make our planet a rich and fascinating world, traces its origin back 4.56 billion years to the protoplanetary disk.

Within this enormous flattened disk of dust and gas, the planets, comets and asteroids formed through gravitational attraction, collision and re-assembly of ice-coated dust particles contributed by previous generations of stars, much of it from supernovae.

In a recent article in New Scientist Dennis Harries of the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany describes rummaging through meteorites collected in Antarctica in the 1970s. Meteorites, particularly the stony variety called chondrites, contain minerals and gases from the original nebula that have been little altered since their origin.

In their study, Harries and colleagues turned up a brand new crystalline mineral composed of a rare combination of nitrogen and chromium which they named “carlsbergite” for the Carlsberg Foundation, an offshoot of the Danish brewery, which funded previous work on it. See, I told you this was about beer.

Diagram showing the ratio of the isotopes nitrogen-15 to nitrogen-14 on six different planets and moons. The moon, Earth and Venus have similar ratios while Mars and especially Saturn’s moon Titan have a larger amount of N-15 to N-14, suggesting their nitrogen came from somewhere else in the solar nebula – protoplanetary disk. Credit: NASA

Next, Harries measured the amount of different isotopes or varieties of nitrogen were present in the meteorites. Isotopes are two or more forms of the same element that have the same number of protons in their atomic nuclei but a different number of neutrons. Nitrogen-14, the most common form that makes up over 99% of known nitrogen, has 7 protons and seven neutrons. Other varieties exist like nitrogen-13 (with just 6 neutrons) and nitrogen-15 (8 neutrons).

The group discovered that mix of nitrogen isotopes was nearly identical to that found on Earth which suggests a common origin in the protoplanetary disk. Nitrogen’s pretty boring though. In its pure form it doesn’t react with anything, but when hooked up to three hydrogen atoms it makes quite a stink. We call it ammonia – chemical formula NH3.

Beer-inspired research bubbles on. Credit: Christian Horvat

Harries believes that dust grains afloat in the dusty disk may have been covered by thin shells of ice containing ammonia and other compounds. A large body, such as a newly-forming proto-planet, moving through the icy gas could have created a shock wave which heated the gas and evaporated the ice.

Now in vapor form, the chemicals could react together to form new materials including carlsbergite and possibly amino acids, where nitrogen is a key component. Somehow, somewhere the very first living things assembled amino acids into proteins. You gotta start somewhere.

Which brings me to a wish. Should the Coors Brewing Company decide one day to fund an investigation into meteorites and scientists uncover yet another new mineral, “coorslite” naturally comes to mind.

Norwegian skydiver update: It’s a rock, not a meteorite

Video of the rock falling past Anders Helstrup. The rock falls at the 2:51 mark.

I never imagined the mystery of the falling meteoroid and Norwegian skydiver would be solved so quickly. But it appears we have an answer. While some may still doubt the conclusion, many will agree it’s the most likely scenario: skydiver Anders Helstrup accidentally packed a pebble into his parachute after an earlier dive. Somehow it escaped his attention.

That’s the conclusion of Steinar Midtskogen, one of the people who helped make the video. In his blog post published today April 8 he writes:

“We think we can reconstruct what happened: A pebble, a few cm in size at most, was accidentally caught inside the parachute at the landing site after the previous jump. Then the parachute was packed on a clean floor and the pebble was not noticed.”

Midtskogen and those involved may be disappointed it didn’t turn out to be a meteorite, but they’re happy a reasonable explanation was found thanks to their crowd sourcing efforts. Please check out Steinar’s blog for complete details.

I have to admit I hoped it was a meteorite, but I’ll take the truth over a wish anytime.

Norwegian skydiver has close shave with falling meteorite – and gets video!

Complete video/story of the possible meteorite that flew by Norwegian skydiver Anders Helstrup. You’ll see the meteor in real time at 1:54 and in slo-mo at 4:25.

Thought you’d like to see this remarkable video of what may be the first-ever recording of a meteorite tumbling through the sky right in front of a human being! Norwegian skydiver Anders Helstrup didn’t even know he’d recorded it with the two cameras fixed to the back and front of his helmet during the dive made back in 2012, but upon later review, he discovered a fast-moving, apple-sized rock flying through the footage.

While you’ve no doubt seen pictures and videos of meteors streaking through the atmosphere, no one has ever recorded the next-to-impossible “dark flight” phase of a meteorite. Somewhere between 9 and 12 miles (15-20 km) high, most incoming meteoroids slow down, cool and cease to make the air glow. From here, they continue to drop until reaching speeds of 200-400 mph before striking the Earth. While that sounds fast,consider that a typical meteoroid first enters the atmosphere between 25,000 and 160,000 mph!

A frame from the video showing the possible meteorite tumbling rapidly by within feet of Anders Helstrup. Had he jumped a second or two earlier he would most likely have been killed by the speeding stone. Credit: NRK

While it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility to capture a falling, non-luminous meteor on camera, the odds are extremely remote. That’s why many think the story and video are either a monumental April Fools’ joke or a deliberate hoax. Hard to blame them with all the goofy stuff spun as truth on the Web.

However, the staff at Universe Today got in touch with Norwegian physicist Pal Brekke. He confirmed that the story was true and kept secret for two years so Helstrup and a small band of scientists and meteorite hunters could track the meteorite down. Using the videos, they calculated a trajectory and possible landing locations. Unfortunately, the fall area is wooded and braided by streams. Lots of places for a meteorite to hide from curious eyes.

After two years of hunting and coming up short, the video was released in hopes of recruiting more people to the effort. Skeptics would argue instead that scientists fell for a good story and are wasting their time looking.

Frame grab from the video showing geology professor describing the possible meteorite. The fractured side faces to the left. The pale gray color could be a clean break to the lighter interior of the stone or covered with a thin coating of secondary fusion crust. Credit: NRK

In the video (above) by Norwegian broadcaster NRK, geologist Hans Amundsen had no doubt it was a meteorite based on appearance alone. The stone has one flat side, likely due to fracturing seconds earlier in its flight, and the other half is rounded from heating and melting due to air friction. A fracture also implies there might be more than one fragment out there.

Morton Bilet, Norwegian meteorite expert, organized a search near Rena in eastern Norway where the object fell. Bilet is “100% certain” the video is not a fake, but whether it’s a space rock or something else, neither he nor anyone else knows for sure. Hopefully more searches are planned for this spring. For more information, photos and graphics check out the Norwegian Meteorite Society and NRK

Frame grab from a security camera video of the largest piece (circled) of last year’s Russian fireball falling into Chebarkul Lake. Click for a video, and be sure to also see the video below.

UPDATE April 4: While not photographed by a human being, I’d almost forgotten about the security camera video of the final moments of dark flight of the largest hunk of the Chelyabinsk meteorite crashing into the ice on Chebarkul Lake recorded last Feb. 15.
Video of clips of the Russian meteorite fall Feb. 15, 2013. Go to 10:30 to see a quick view of the meteorite falling into the lake.

Divers hope to raise biggest Chelyabinsk meteorite yet

Russian newspaper from last October showing divers rafting the 1,250-lb. hunk of Chelyabinsk meteorite to the shoreline of Chebakul Lake. The bold red headline reads: “Alien was raised from the bottom”. Credit: Bob King

Last October, divers fished out a 1.250 pound meteorite from Chebarkul Lake west of the city of Chelyabinsk. You’ll recall Chelyabinsk gave its name to the spectacular Russian fireball that rocked the city February 15 last year. The shock wave from the exploding meteoroid damaged buildings and shattered windows – flying glass injured some 1,600 people.

The largest piece of the meteorite pulled from Cherbarkul Lake is now on display in the Chelyabinsk Regional History Museum. Credit: Reuters

Thousands of small fragments pelted the snowy countryside near the city, and a big piece (or pieces) punched a neat hole some 20 feet (6-meters) through the ice of Chebarkul Lake. Russian scientists mapped the lake bottom soon after and found several “anomalies”. One of them proved to be the 1,250-pound behemoth, which divers retrieved after much effort.

It’s the largest fragment found to date, but that may change soon. Divers and scientists have found a dozen more anomalies, including one that indicates an object weighting several tons, according to Arkady Ovcharenko of the Geophysics Institute of the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Compilation of some of the best videos of the Chelyabinsk fireball

Last weekend, divers attempted to explore the new sites but high winds and turbid water put the kibosh on their efforts. This Saturday they used special probes to pinpoint two separate locations where the anomalies are clustered.

Vitaliy Khvatov, my contact in Russia, tells me that the search begins anew tomorrow to locate and retrieve the granddaddy meteorite and its siblings.

Tiny ‘spherules’ hint at evidence of life in Mars meteorite Yamato 000593

This scanning electron microscope image shows spheroidal features embedded in a layer of iddingsite, a mineral formed by action of water, in the Yamato 000593 meteorite. An area with the spheres, circled in red, was found to have about twice as much carbon present as an area (circled in blue) without the spheres. The measure at left is one micron (.001 mm) or about the size of some bacteria. Credit: NASA

A team of scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has found evidence of past water movement and tiny carbon-rich spherules in Martian meteorite Yamato 000593.

The 30-pound (13.7 kg) chunk of Mars was collected on the Yamato Glacier in Antarctica by the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition in 2000. It was once part of a 1.3 billion year old Martian lava flow but was ejected by a meteorite impact 12 million years ago and landed near the south pole some 50,000 years ago.

Scientists distinguish Mars rocks from Earth’s by the atmospheric gases trapped inside (these are compared to measurements of the planet’s atmosphere made in situ by our Mars landers) and the distinctive composition of oxygen in the minerals making up the rock. Martian rocks contain a greater proportion of oxygen’s heavier forms, called isotopes, compared to Earth rocks.

This scanning electron microscope image of a polished thin section of a meteorite from Mars shows tunnels and curved micro-tunnels deep within Yamato 000593. Iddingsite is a clay mineral indicating that water once flowed through cracks in the rock. The scale bar at lower left is 2 microns. Credit: NASA

The team made two fascinating discoveries when they peered closely into the interior of the meteorite:

* Micro-tunnel structures with curved, undulating shapes that thread their way through the rock and resemble similar textures reported by other researchers in terrestrial basaltic glasses created by bacteria.

* Distinct nanometer- to-micrometer-sized spherules resembling bacteria that are sandwiched between layers within the rock and enriched in carbon compared to their surroundings.

Similar bacteria-like structures are found inside the Martian Nakhla meteorite that fell in Egypt in 1911. Credit: NASA / ARES / JSC

Similar spherical features were previously seen in the Martian meteorite Nakhla that fell in Egypt in 1911. Everett Gibson, who led the new study, was also involved in the 1996 study of Allan Hills 84001, the first Martian meteorite thought to be touched by life’s imprint. I’ll never forget the excitement and controversy at the time when it was announced that possible evidence of life in the form of worm-like structures and organic molecules were found within the meteorite.

Bacteria-like structures in the Martian Allan Hills 84001 (ALH 84001) meteorite discovered in Antarctica in 1984. Credit: NASA

We know now that virtually all potential “signs of life” found by the 1996 researchers could have been created by chemical and other inorganic processes, making the team’s results inconclusive at best.

Likewise, Gibson and Lauren White, lead author of the recent paper on Yamato 000593 in the International Journal of Astrobiology, allow that non-living processes could have cooked up the carbon-rich structures and micro-tunnels. Still, the similarities between structures in basaltic Earth rocks and Yamato 000593 might also imply life’s handiwork on a planet other than our own.

Rock-eating bacteria – called endoliths – inside a basaltic rock found 3,900 feet (1,200 meters) beneath the Indian Ocean floor. Credit: NOAA Ocean Explorer

“As more Martian meteorites are discovered, continued research focusing on these samples collectively will offer deeper insight into attributes which are indigenous to ancient Mars,” said White. “As these meteorite studies are compared to present day robotic observations on Mars, the mysteries of the planet’s seemingly wetter past will be revealed.”

Knowing how scientists relish testing any new claim, especially one hypothesizing early life on Mars, the story of Yamato 000593 can’t help but be revised and expanded in the months and years ahead.



Boom! Watch a record-breaking meteorite strike the moon

Lunar impact blast September 11, 2013

Wish I’d been over in Europe staring at the waxing crescent moon last September 11. On that evening, a meteoroid weighing an estimated 900 pounds (400 kg) struck Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds) at 38,000 mph at 8:07 p.m. Greenwich Time.

The flash from the impact occurred in the “dark” portion of the moon not illuminated by sunlight, providing excellent contrast against the landscape.  Anyone looking up at our satellite at that moment would have easily seen it as a star-like point of light of magnitude 2.9, nearly as bright as the stars comprising the Big Dipper.

Still frame from the video taken September 11, 2013 shows the bright flash in Mare Nubium from the small asteroid impact. Credit: J. Madiedo / MIDAS

It was dutifully recorded by two telescopes equipped with CCD cameras in the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS) program in southern Spain. Astronomer Jose M. Madiedo, who was operating the telescopes at the time, reports that the event was not only the brightest but the longest-lasting confirmed lunar impact flash; the afterglow of the explosion lasting fully 8 seconds. Estimated at between 2 and 4 feet across (about 1 meter), the little asteroid struck the moon with the equivalent of 15 tons of TNT, hollowing out a 131-foot (40-meter) diameter crater.

NASA video of the March 17, 2013 lunar meteorite impact 

The energy released was three times more powerful than the previous largest impact observed with NASA telescopes last March 17. NASA has recorded more than 300 lunar strikes, almost all much smaller than this one. Over half come from meteor streams like the Perseids or Geminids – the rest originate from random meteorite and comet shards called sporadics.

Once NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Satellite gets into position, it should have no problem photographing this large of an impact scar. We hope the new crater will soon be targeted.

The moon and approximate location of the big impact as seen from southern Spain around 8 p.m. September 11, 2013. Stellarium

The moon has virtually no atmosphere, so meteorites strike its surface at full speed without suffering break up. Similar sized rocks pelt our planet but our atmosphere renders most of them harmless; air pressure and atmospheric heating shatters and slows them down, leaving mostly small pieces traveling at low velocity.

You can read more about the discovery in Madiedo’s complete article published the Monthly Notices of the British Astronomical Society.

Olympic committee says “No” to meteorite medals during Sochi games

Reporters gather around the largest piece of the Chelyabinsk meteorite fall, which was lifted from the bottom of the Chebarkul Lake and placed on display in a local museum in Chelyabinsk last fall. It weighs about 1,442 lbs.
Credit: Reuters / Andrey Tkachenko

Apparently meteorites and medals don’t mix. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has told Russian authorities that they can’t give out the special meteorite medals commemorating the anniversary of last year’s spectacular Chelyabinsk fireball to gold-medal-winning athletes during ceremonies.

It’s perfectly fine to do so after the Olympic games and separate from them but not before. The IOC wants to keep the games free of any outside influences especially during competitions and ceremonies.

A worker creates a special souvenir Olympic medal with a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite at the MAOK art workshop in Zlatoust, Russia recently. In addition to their gold medals, winning athletes were to each receive an additional gold and meteorite medal. Credit: RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Kondratuk

While disappointed, I understand the decision. Even though meteorite-embedded medals are anything but commercial, I suppose someone might suggest other less savory commemorations connected to politics, battles or buildings.

We hope the athletes will get their due after the 23rd.

Compilation of dashcam and security camera videos of the Chelyabinsk fireball

Today marks the first anniversary of the Feb. 15, 2013 Chelyabinsk meteorite fall – the largest witnessed meteorite fall since the Tunguska Event in 1908 which also occurred over Russia. Enjoy the truly amazing video compilation. If you’d like more information and pictures showing just how amazing this meteorite is, check out today’s article on Universe Today.

10 Sochi Olympians will win gold medals studded with Chelyabinsk meteorites

A worker creates a special souvenir Olympic medal with a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite at the MAOK art workshop in Zlatoust, Russia. In addition to their gold medals, winners on Feb. 15 will each receive an additional gold and meteorite medal. Credit: RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Kondratuk

Athletes who win gold in Sochi Winter Olympics on February 15 will take away something even more valuable – a fragment of the Russian fireball that blew up over Chelyabinsk, Russia on the same day a year ago.

“We will hand out our medals to all the athletes who will win gold on that day, because both the meteorite strike and the Olympic Games are global events,” said Alexei Betekhtin, culture minister for the Chelyabinsk region.

The great fireball over Chelyabinsk, Russia captured on a dashcam on Feb. 15, 2013. Credit: Aleksandr Ivanov

The Chelyabinsk fall, the largest witnessed meteorite fall in over 100 years, exploded with 20-30 times the force of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima at an altitude of just 14.5 miles (23 km). Before it detonated into thousands of mostly gravel-sized meteorites and dust, it’s estimate the incoming meteoroid was as tall as a five-story building. The shock wave from the explosion shattered windows up and down the city, injuring nearly 1,500 people.

A beautiful, fluted 889g (1.96 lb.) fragment of Chelyabinsk. Cube is 1 cm (1/2″) across. Credit: Alexander of Chelya

The largest fragment, weighing 1,442 lbs. (654 kg), punched a hole in the ice of Lake Chebarkul. Divers raised it from the bottom muck on Oct. 16 last year and rafted it ashore, where scientists and excited onlookers watched as the massive space rock was hoisted onto a scale and promptly broke into three pieces. Even the scale broke from the weight.

A chip of Chelyabinsk will be affixed to each of the special medals; 10 will go to the gold medallists and another 40 will be sold to private collectors.

The lucky gold medal winners will received the cosmically-inspired medals on February 15 for the following events: men’s 1,500 meter speed skating, the women’s 1,000 meters and the men’s 1,500 short track, the women’s cross-country skiing relay, the men’s K-125 ski jump, the women’s super-giant slalom and men’s skeleton events.

An example of the gold medal that will be awarded to Olympians in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi which begins Feb. 7. Credit: Sochi 2014

“We are made of star stuff,” as the late Carl Sagan once said. While the special medals bear space rocks billions of years old, consider the gold itself. Once thought to have been forged in supernovae explosions, recent research has shown that most gold is created when neutron stars collide and merge.

Neutron stars are the remnant collapsed cores of supergiant stars after they explode as supernovae. Although most of the material in the collisions disappears down a newly-formed black hole, some of it’s ejected at high speed into space where neutrons crashing into neutrons build heavy elements like gold and platinum.

What about the silver medals and the copper used in the bronze? Those elements formed in the tremendous energy liberated in long-ago supernovae blasts. So while only a few lucky ones will get a meteorite medal, all winners will receive souvenirs from the most cataclysmic events in the known universe.

Whale of a Chelyabinsk meteorite fished from Russian lake


Divers drag the big chunk of Chelyabinsk meteorite to the shore of Lake Chebarkul earlier today.

The biggest chunk of the Russian Chelyabinsk meteorite finally saw the light of day when divers fished it up from Chebarkul Lake earlier today. The soaking wet, half-ton rock glistened on the cold, cloudy morning, its surface scalloped by hollows of rock called regmaglypts melted away during its searing flight through the atmosphere last February 15.

Video of the big catch!

Scientists and divers pulled the 5-foot-long (1.5 meter) rock from under a thick layer of silt, wrapped in a protective blanket and slid it ashore on a metal sheet. The crowd huddled around taking pictures with cameras, phones and iPads as the rock was lifted onto a scale to be weighed. As scientists used levers and ropes to hoist it from the ground, the giant meteorite broke into three pieces. Moments later it broke the scale when it hit the 1,255 pound mark!

With an estimated total weight of over 1,300 pounds (600 kg), this busted chunk of Chelyabinsk will likely make the Top Ten list of largest meteorites found. While 1,300 pounds is nothing to sniff at, the original meteoroid that entered that atmosphere that cold February morning is estimated to have weighed 10,000 tons! Some of that landed as smaller fragments, much of it burned up in the atmosphere, leaving a dusty, smoky trail that lingered for hours over the city of Chelyabinsk and the Ural Mountain region. The shock wave from the explosion of the meteoroid shattered thousands of windows, injuring some 1,200 people.

Movie day! Cool space station docking; Lake Chebarkul gives up 5 more meteorites

Expedition 37 arrives at the International Space Station last night 

Last night a Soyuz rocket carrying three members of the Expedition 37 crew blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan headed for the International Space Station. Instead of dallying in orbit, the crew took the fast lane to the station, docking fewer than 6 hours later.

I thought you’d enjoy the video. The quality’s great and you get to hear the audio too as the craft lines up and docks with the station. Funny how the Soyuz looks like an old propeller plane. Just a happenstance of angle (the wing-like solar arrays are edge-on to the camera) and shapes.

Flames, like this one pictured here, burn more perfectly in microgravity, helping researchers get a better understanding of the nature of combustion in space and on Earth.
Credit: NASA

After docking at the Poisk mini-research module, crew members Oleg Kotov, Mike Hopkins and Sergey Ryazanskiy were welcomed aboard shortly before midnight. The crew will study human physiology and health including how the body changes shape in microgravity as well as the effects of weightlessness on the immune system.

Science is happening all the time on the ISS. Last week the crew examined everything from combustion and fire suppression in space to studying how metallic crystals transition from liquid to solid when creating alloys.

Frame from the video of today’s latest meteorites found on the bottom of Lake Chebarkul. Click to watch. Credit: OSU Search-and-Rescue Service – Chelyabinsk region

Meanwhile back on Earth, Russian divers recovered five more hefty chunks of the Chelyabinsk meteorite from Lake Chebarkul today. Athough the video’s in Russian, it’s easy to see what’s going on. The fragments, measuring from 4 to 12 inches (10-30 cm) were taken back to the beach and weighed and bagged. Enjoy the cute diving mascot.

The mass of the entire Chelyabinsk meteorite as it entered the atmosphere is estimated at 11,000 tons (10,000 metric tons). Most of it broke into small pieces. What’s believed to be the largest fragment, a half-ton hulk at the bottom of the lake, remains buried under an 8-foot (2.5 m) layer of silt. Scientists are pumping out mud from around the meteorite and expect to fish it out by Oct. 4.