A meteoroid "about the size of a washing machine" broke apart and rained down on a Costa Rican town last month. It's since been classified as an "extraterrestrial mud ball" that could provide insights into the origin of our solar system, scientists say.
Residents of Aguas Zarcas, a small town in Costa Rica, originally reported the meteor as a "large fireball in the sky" when it first appeared April 23. As the meteoroid entered the atmosphere, it broke into hundreds of meteorites that landed around the town, including a two-pound rock that crashed through someone's roof, breaking a dining table.
While dry meteorites are fairly common, scientists found the ones that landed in Costa Rica to be made of wet clay. The rare "carbonaceous chondrites" are rich in organic compounds and full of water, which could provide insights into how to extract water from asteroids in space.
"Many carbonaceous chondrites are mud balls that are between 80 and 95% clay," said Laurence Garvie, a research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and a curator for Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies. "Clays are important because water is an integral part of their structure."
Following early reports, scientists raced to get a piece of history before the meteorites could be destroyed by rainfall. A total of 55 pounds have been recovered so far.
Garvie said that scientists around the world will be studying the meteorites for years to come, searching for a glimpse into the history of the solar system. "Nature has said 'here you are' and now we have to be smart enough to tease apart the individual components and understand what they are telling us," Garvie said.
Scientists have already determined a bit about where the meteorite came from. "It formed in an environment free of life, then was preserved in the cold and vacuum of space for 4.56 billion years and then dropped in Costa Rica," Garvie explained.
A significant carbonaceous chondrites meteorite hasn't landed on earth in 50 years, since one arrived in Australia in 1969. It went on to become one of the most studied meteorites in the world.
"Carbonaceous chondrites are relatively rare among meteorites but are some of the most sought-after by researchers because they contain the best-preserved clues to the origin of the solar system," center Director Meenakshi Wadhwa said. "This new meteorite represents one of the most scientifically significant additions to our wonderful collection in recent years."