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Ancient miracle meteorite saved from Australian outback

Researchers raced against time and weather to recover a 4.5-billion-year-old hunk of rock from outer space.

It's a story worthy of a dramatic television miniseries. It involves scientists battling lost time and hazardous weather to recover a piece of the earliest universe, right here on Earth. Now that's a winning elevator pitch. This adventure really did happen in Australia recently.

It all starts with a fancy camera system operated by Curtin University's Desert Fireball Network team. A group of 32 remote cameras dotted across the outback keep an eye out for falling meteorites in hopes of tracking their trajectories and aiding in recovery of the rare space rocks.

The meteorite fell on November 27, a sight witnessed by people on the ground as well as the camera network. The team analyzed the images and traced the likely landing spot to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, a massive desert lake in South Australia that sometimes fills up with rain.


This is a very special space rock.

Curtin University

The team went into action, implementing a three-day recovery operation involving a pilot spotting from the air, a drone, searchers on the ground at the lake and local guides. Phil Bland, a science professor at Curtin, dug the meteorite out of a 16.5-inch (42-centimeter) hole by hand just before the rain came on New Year's Eve.

"The fact we have managed to retrieve the meteorite at all is remarkable," Desert Fireball Network team member Jonathan Paxman said in a release Wednesday. "Our people worked around the clock to reduce the data, enabling rapid recovery of something that would have been lost if we'd gotten there any later."

The meteorite turned out to be a nearly 4-pound (1.7-kilogram) hunk that Bland believes dates back over 4.5 billion years, from the early formation of the solar system. It is the first to be recovered with information gleaned from the camera network.

Bland identified the meteorite as a chondrite, or stony meteorite, as opposed to a metallic one. NASA notes that chondrite meteorites "are thought to consist of material that formed in the cloud of dust and gas from which the solar system formed," which points to the Australian stone's multi-billion-year age.

In case the Lifetime network decides to dramatize this tale, I would suggest casting Matthew McConaughey as professor Bland. I can already see the scene of him crouching in the mud, digging into the lake bed and shouting "nooooo!" in slow motion as storm clouds gather before triumphantly pulling the rock from the sludge. I would watch it.