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‘Fireball’ Meteorite Found to Contain Pristine Out-of-This-World Organic Compounds

Finding a meteorite is no small feat. Finding one in pristine condition — with extraterrestrial organic compounds intact — is a scientific jackpot.

Finding a meteorite is no small feat. Finding one in pristine condition — with extraterrestrial organic compounds intact — is a scientific jackpot.

(CN) — More than 6,000 meteorites hit planet Earth every year. Most land in the ocean or disappear into uninhabited regions. It’s rare to reach a meteorite before the planet’s oxygen and humidity has marred the space rocks with rust, or bacteria and lichen have moved in.

What makes the Hamburg meteorite special is not just that it landed on a frozen lake in Michigan, but that 674 people across the U.S. and Canada watched it fly across the sky that January night in 2018. Within 48 hours, luck and weather radar led meteorite hunter Robert Ward to a 0.8-ounce piece of space rock in the snow atop frozen Strawberry Lake.

Research published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science on Tuesday finally analyzed the composition of the meteorite named for the nearby town of Hamburg.

"Because these first specimens of the meteorite were rapidly recovered from an icy surface, the time period for terrestrial alteration was short; the meteorite has the potential to be preserved in a pristine condition,” the researchers explain in the paper. “An international consortium was formed to thoroughly characterize the meteorite while it was still fresh."

A team of two dozen researchers from across the U.S., Canada, Germany and China identified a rich inventory of 2,600 organic compounds in the samples, mainly hydrocarbons.

While these compounds are ubiquitous throughout the solar system, Jennika Greer, a graduate student at the Field Museum in Chicago who contributed to the research said, “It's nice to have something so pristine to actually look at the inventory of organic compounds.”

Uranium lead dating analyzed the formation of individual components in the meteorite, leading researchers to age the Hamburg samples to 4.5 billion years, making it about as old as Earth. Cosmogenic nuclide dating — analyzing exposure to cosmic rays — indicates the H4 chondrite Hamburg meteor likely broke apart from a larger asteroid around 12 million years ago.

“This research will give us a better understanding of the organic chemistry that occurs in other extraterrestrial bodies and asteroids,” explained Philipp Heck, a Field Museum curator and a lead author on the paper.

“We know very early on before there was life on Earth, meteorites fell to Earth with their own organic inventory, so it is important to understand what the organic inventory is in these different meteorites and then figure out whether those compounds might have contributed to the building blocks of life,” Heck explained. 

Another study led by the University of Western Ontario last year mapped out the Hamburg meteorite's fireball trajectory to Earth from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

If it wasn’t for the curious people watching the sky that fateful January night, the Hamburg meteorite might have remained buried in the snow and fallen to the bottom of the lake come spring.

“The reason why it was recovered so quickly is that it was seen by many observers because it was in pretty densely populated area the Midwest,” Heck said. “Citizen scientists and their support of science make scientific studies like this possible. We shouldn't take that for granted.”

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