Cosmic adventure: Seeking space rocks in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary
On March 7, 2018, a large meteorite broke up and fell into the ocean about 15 miles off the coast of Washington into NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Eyewitnesses from nearby areas including Quinault Indian Nation and Grays Harbor County reported a bright flash in the sky and sonic booms loud enough to shake homes and cars. The event was so strong it was recorded by seismometers located deep on the seafloor. This summer, researchers will be searching for fragments of the meteorite within sanctuary waters.
Meteorites include samples of the earliest stages in the formation of our solar system. Earth and other planets formed from smaller material, and meteorites are leftover remnants of that smaller material. They are pieces of the ancient solar system that you can hold in your hand or take to a laboratory to study. While meteorites fall harmlessly to Earth on a daily basis, occasionally a meteorite large enough to cause damage will fall.
By studying the composition and mechanical properties of meteorites, we can better understand the potential danger from meteorite falls. One way to do this is by using weather radar imagery produced by NOAA, using software developed by NASA.
Two expeditions to the deep
In summer of 2018, researchers from Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, NASA, and the University of Washington joined Ocean Exploration Trust on the E/V Nautilus to attempt to locate and recover meteorite fragments from the seafloor. Once at the location of the fall, they mapped the area of the debris field and conducted a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive.
Researchers located and recovered fragments with a variety of tools, including a specially-designed magnetic rake. One small melted fragment, called “fusion crust,” was confirmed to be from the meteorite exterior.
In early June, NASA’s Dr. Marc Fries and international researchers will join the crew of Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor to return to the area, working 24 hours a day for five days. Jenny Waddell, research coordinator for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, will be on the team. During the Seeking Space Rocks expedition, researchers will use the ROV SuBastian to search for meteorite material and explore the seafloor. Working in a previously explored range, they will use new sampling tools designed and fabricated by scientists at Schmidt Ocean Institute to retrieve rocks from the seafloor while leaving sediments and organisms in place.
As the community closest to the debris field, the Quinault Indian Nation will have the opportunity to suggest a name for the meteorite in the event sufficient material is recovered during the expedition to warrant a record in the official database. In addition, the team plans to hold a ship-to-shore event with students from the Quinault Indian Nation during the expedition to give tribal youth an opportunity to speak to NASA scientists and ROV pilots directly. The event will be facilitated by Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary’s education and outreach specialist, Nicole Harris, in cooperation with teachers from Taholah School on the Quinault Indian Reservation.
Why seek meteorites?
Meteorites are small pieces of the very complicated process that formed the solar system, each with its own formation and alteration history. Together the meteorites in the world’s collections make up a vast set of puzzle pieces, each with a contribution to make toward understanding the early days of our solar system. The more puzzle pieces we have, the more complete our picture of the puzzle becomes.
Last year’s expedition with the E/V Nautilus produced a tiny melted fragment of meteorite, which is helpful but doesn’t provide enough information to clearly identify the meteorite. The follow-on expedition with the R/V Falkor is intended to learn from the Nautilus mission and attempt to recover at least one unmelted meteorite fragment. That will be enough to identify the meteorite, and to enter it into the Meteoritical Society database as another piece of the puzzle.
The meteorite that caused the Olympic Coast fall behaved in an unusual fashion when it fell to Earth. Data from NOAA weather radar imagery shows that it was especially resistant to fragmentation, causing a surprising number of larger meteorites to survive the fall. If we can find out what kind of meteorite did this, we can use data on the abundance of different meteorite types to refine our expectations on how often a damaging meteorite fall might occur. If the Olympic Coast meteorite is a very rare type, then meteorite falls with its fragmentation behavior will be equally rare. If it is a more common type of meteorite, we may need to re-think the likelihood of meteorite falls that are capable of causing damage on the ground.
Scientists aren’t the only seekers on this mission. Schmidt Ocean Institute offers an Artist-At-Sea program, where artists work together with scientists and crew to take inspiration from research aboard Falkor.
During the Seeking Space Rocks expedition, artist Abrian Cruington will be on board to illustrate the journey and mission. Her goal is to create a large map, incorporating scientific data and creating graphic stories. University of Washington graduate Elisa Aitoro will also join the expedition as a Schmidt Student Opportunities participant to assist the science party in their work.