A Houston couple race to find 4.5 billion-year-old fallen space rocks

Mark Fries and Linda Willsenbach Fries have never seen a highway this beautiful before.

The lawn has been freshly mowed. The road was flat. Light-colored pebbles line US 84 near Natchez, Mississippi, and were the perfect place to find freshly fallen space rocks.

The husband-and-wife team arrived at this spot after a more than five-hour flight from Clear Lake and a decade of using weather radar and computer models to predict where meteorites — bits of space rock that survived the journey through Earth’s atmosphere — might hold up. Mark Fries has taken similar trips before, going to places where a computer model has led him, but has been disappointed.

On this hot day in late April, as they walked along the highway mopping up cut grass and spewing mosquitoes away, they hoped this time would be different.

a curse

Meteorites are 4.5 billion year old time capsules from the early solar system, and The couple has always been infatuated with them, traveling separately With expeditions to Antarctica, a well-known landing field for meteorites, to find them.

Mark Fries is the cosmic dust curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Linda Willsenbach-Fries, who previously organized meteorites for the Smithsonian Institution, is a science writer at Rice University. Over a decade ago, Mark Fries began thinking about how to find meteorites more quickly, within days of them falling from the sky.

It all started with beer and banter between Mark Fries and his brother Jeff, a retired Air Force meteorologist.

“We obviously have some genes that code for a fascination with falling objects,” Mark Fries said. “He loves the rain and the weather, and I love meteors. And I turned to ‘Yeah, I can totally do your job.’” You are not special. As you know, I am genetically predisposed. “

This banter turned into an idea. Weather radar could possibly be used to find meteorites falling on Earth.

They tested this theory after finding meteorites in the city of the West, Near Waco, in 2009. Mark Fries, who was living in California at the time, searched the records of Doppler radar. He found that the energy packets emitted by the Doppler antenna bounce off the meteors and the turbulent wakefulness they caused in the atmosphere.

He started building a computer A model for combining radar, wind speed, and other factors to determine where these rocks are on Earth. But after nine trips to the meteor fall, he No space rock found. To make matters worse, other meteorite hunters in the area, some using their data, will find space rocks, screaming at their success. Damn it.

“The running joke is that the meteor gods only allow meteors to be found once,” he said. “And if you find them on radar, that counts. I can’t see them on Earth.”

Existence

By April, Mark Fries was in the 55th version of his model. A citizen scientist spotted meteorites on weather radar and urged Mark Fries to take a look at a Doppler.

Radar, eyewitness and satellite reports confirmed that the meteorites fell on Wednesday, April 27 at 8:03 a.m. Two days later, Mark Fries used his model to locate an area in Mississippi that was about 3 miles wide and 10 miles long.

Friday evening he said: We have rocks on the ground. “Lots and lots of rocks,” remembers Linda Wilsenbach-Fries. And so he said, ‘We’re going to Mississippi. “We didn’t even book a hotel room.”

Hopping into their Honda Civic, painted cosmic blue to shine like the stars, they reached the highway near Natchez at about 1:30 p.m. the next day. Mark Fries inspected the south side of US 84, and Linda Willsenbach-Fries inspected the north side.

I spotted a possible meteor within half an hour, but they weren’t completely convinced.

“I found a stick and poke it, then crushed it,” Mark Fries said. “It was a piece of rubber tire that had stayed in the sun for a long time, and the whole world looked like a meteor.”

“I was very disappointed,” said Linda Willsenbach-Fries.

But she continued to search. Less than an hour later, I spied on a black rectangular object larger than the pebbles around it. It had small broken areas that appeared light gray on the inside. It was about two inches long.

“I just heard a loud exclamation. It wasn’t even formed into words,” he said. “And I looked and saw Linda making gestures and making noises, some of which were pointing toward the floor.”

A few hours after that, Mark Fries came to be incoherent. He found a stone nested in the grassy middle. Half of it is covered with a black crust, the rest is light gray with small sparkling mineral grains. It was a little shorter and more rectangular than the elongated triangle his wife found.

“When he found his first stone, he was very happy,” she said. “I’ve never seen him so happy.”

The couple were so excited that the driver stopped and asked what they found. He was also looking for meteorites.

CT scan

Mark Fries and Linda Willsenbach Fries knew their space rocks were pure. The meteorites were on the planet for only a few days, before they rained down and rusted the fine grains of the metallic iron and nickel.

They were meticulous in picking up rocks. They wore gloves so that the oils from their skin would not contaminate the meteorites. They wrapped the rocks in aluminum foil baked at 930 degrees Fahrenheit to remove anything that might contaminate the meteorite. Mark Fries had baked the wafer himself in the lab while preparing to deal with meteorites on a previous project.

Then they took the samples to Johnson Space Center, where Scott Eakley, a CT X-ray scientist, was able to peer inside the meteorites for clues to what they might carry. A CT machine took thousands of X-ray images over the course of several hours, which Ekley then stitched together to create a 3-D representation of the rock’s interiors.

“Oh my God,” said Linda Wilsenbach-Fries, after she saw a model of the meteorite that her husband had collected.

The model showed a large bright spot in the black and gray shaded image. The bright spot represented a single mineral grain, which was unusually large and unexpected in the type of meteorites they collected. He had the ability to open up new discoveries.

To learn more, Marc Fries and Linda Welzenbach-Fries plan to break through their rocks and search for salt crystals that may have held liquids from 4.5 billion years ago. They will also analyze the minerals of meteorites to help understand what materials were in the solar system when it was forming, and they will look for differences in chlorine and other elements that can only be produced by cosmic radiation.

Together, these pieces will tell the history of the rock.

Science

Most of the meteorites come from the asteroid belt, where ancient space debris clustered between Mars and Jupiter. Meteorites are like tiny time capsules because this main asteroid belt is where rocks in the Sun didn’t form and planets assembled about 4.5 billion years ago.

NASA and other space agencies have missions to collect samples from asteroids in space. These samples are the purest and the most scientifically significant. It’s still useful to take advantage of rocks that fall to Earth, said Paul Appel, chief scientist for Small Object Exploration at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Abell couldn’t join Marc Fries and Linda Welzenbach-Fries on their trip to Mississippi. He was happy – and a bit jealous – to receive text messages about their discoveries.

It rained after they returned, but people in Mississippi continued to find meteorites. Despite the damage from rain, scientists can still determine a meteorite’s minerals, its hardness (which determines how far it reaches in the atmosphere before it breaks), and age.

But this becomes more difficult the longer the rocks lie on Earth, giving nature, people and animals more time to alter the meteorites. Abel, for example, mentioned an incident in which researchers found dog trails leading to a meteorite — and the boulder was sitting in yellow snow.

However, Abel was convinced that the Mississippi meteorites would have value. Went to Mississippi two weeks after Mark Fries and Linda Willsenbach Fries. He’s challenged forest possessions with cottonmouth snakes, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. He placed a magnet inside a ziplock bag to find quarter-inch shards under the leaves, and took GPS coordinates about where the shards were collected.

Knowing their location could help improve Mark Fries’ model, enabling rapid responses to new meteorites and providing useful information for planetary defense about how a larger space rock can fracture as it enters the atmosphere.

As for Mark Fries, he feels the curse has finally been lifted.

“I will find more meteorites,” he said.

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