The Exploration Vessel Nautilus is spending Monday off the coast of Washington state with a NASA scientist aboard looking for hunks of meteorite from the largest fall of space rock in decades.
It's estimated that over 2 metric tons of meteor bits landed in the Pacific Ocean about 15.5 miles (25 km) off the coast of Washington after briefly lighting up the sky as a fireball (see video embedded below) on the evening of March 7.
NASA scientist Marc Fries is on the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust's E/V Nautilus, which is taking a look at the sea floor within a section of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. That's where radar saw the cosmic debris splash down.
A team is also deploying the remotely operated vehicles Argus and Hercules. Those vehicles are equipped with custom-magnetized wands to hopefully pick up any pieces of meteorite and bring them above water for closer inspection.
The whole mission, which is also supported by National Geographic, got underway around 9 a.m. PT Monday and is set to last until 4 pm PT. It's being broadcast live online via the above embedded video.
A few hours into the mission, Hercules had already scooped up some potentially interesting small objects from the sea floor for closer examination. Fries said during the webcast that they were in an area of the fall where he would expect to find pieces of the meteor as large as a brick. This would be the first time a meteorite has been recovered from the ocean floor.
Earlier, Fries told the Northwest News Network that he expects to find something on the soft ocean floor with the help of sonar and a magnetometer aboard the Nautilus.
"Meteorites have spectacular scientific value," Fries said. "The radar data seems to show that this thing is mechanically tougher -- it's a tougher piece of rock -- than the other meteorite falls we've seen to date. This is something different."
Fries also said prior to the mission that recovering fragments from this fall "will provide valuable information on the threat posed by asteroids with Earth-crossing orbits."
Any fragments the team does find will be examined and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
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