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Martian meteorite anniversary reminds residents of Raleigh collection

Posted June 27, 2016

The quiet morning of June 28, 1911 near the village of Nakhla, northwest of Alexandria, Egypt was rocked by a series of aerial explosions, frightening villagers and their animals as meteorite fragments fell into an area about 4.5 kilometers in diameter. 

This meteorite fall is legendary among astronomers, not just because it was Egypt’s first, but also because a dog was supposedly struck and “vaporized” by one of the meteorite fragments. According to the story told by Mohammed Ali Effendi Hakim, a farmer who claims to have witnessed the event, one of those fragments “fell on a dog...leaving it like ashes in a moment.”

While no evidence of a perished pooch has ever surfaced, about 40 fragments totaling more than 1.5 pounds were recovered in an investigation by the Geological Survey of Egypt It would take another 75+ years and data from a NASA planetary mission to verify just how special the Nakhla meteorite is.

Based on atmospheric data from the Viking mission compared to gases trapped in the meteorite, the Nakhla meteorite was found to be a rare piece of Mars. Of the over 60,000 or so meteorites that have been discovered on Earth, only 124 have been identified as originating on Mars.

Today, you can see and touch a fragment of the Nakhla meteorite at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. But you don't have to travel that far to see or touch a bit of Mars.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has samples of six Mars meteorites on display outside the Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Lab on the 3rd floor of the Nature Research Center. Four samples from the Zagami meteorite collected in 1962 in Nigeria (the second meteorite found to contain a significant trapped Martian atmosphere and the largest Martian meteorite found to date), a sample from the Tissint meteorite which took 1.1 million years to reach Earth, where it fell in 2011 in Morocco, and a segment of the 172 million year old Los Angeles Meteorite that visitors can touch.

The Los Angeles Meteorite has an interesting history. Most meteorites have more specific information about the location they were found, but not this one. Bob Verish found two stones in the Mojave Desert. He tossed the stones, totaling about 1.5 pounds into the growing rock collection in the backyard of his Los Angeles home.

20 years later and wiser, while cleaning out that collection, Verish recognized the attached fusion crust as a sign of a possible meteorite. He brought the stones to UCLA for analysis where they were identified as meteorites and researchers noted similarity to a Mars meteorite found in the Antarctic in 1994. UCLA and Arizona State University researchers teamed up to validate Martian origin of the find in time for the Lunar And Planetary Science Conference. 

The Meteoritical Society database lists 29 meteorites, none of Martian or lunar origin, that have been found in 22 North Carolina counties over the years. In 1913, a 2.6 pound stony meteorite was seen to fall in Moore County. In 1934, the 39.7 pound iron Nashville meteorite was found 10 miles east of Rocky Mount, NC. If you think you’ve found a meteorite, Chris Tacker, Curator of Geology at the Natural Sciences museum, has published some tips on the museum website.


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