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They Caught a Falling Star and Put it in Their Pocket

By Sandy Sand     Mar 27, 2009 in Science
The old song refrain goes, “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket,” and now a team of astronomers have found pieces of an asteroid that shuttled down to Earth.
More than a pocketful of stardust was found in the Sudan desert at the end of last year, making it possible for scientists to match up a space rock with a meteorite that, for the most part, burned up in the atmosphere.
They hoped that the black rock will provide insights into how the planets were formed.
In a study released by Nature Journal this month, reported that last October:
…astronomers tracked a small non-threatening asteroid heading toward Earth before it became a "shooting star," something they had not done before. It blew up in the sky and scientists thought there would be no space rocks left to examine.
But a painstaking search by dozens of students through the remote Sudan desert came up with 8.7 pounds of black jagged rocks, leftovers from the asteroid 2008 TC3. And those dark rocks were full of surprises and minuscule diamonds.
For years, astronomers have lobbied Congress to grant them money for a robot probe to grab a chunk of asteroid to bring back to Earth for lab analysis.
This one time they got lucky, and in effect the “tiny mountain” came to them rather than them having to go to the mountain.
Peter Jenniskens of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said:
"This was a meteorite that was not in our collection, a completely new material."
For the most part, the asteroid burned up in the atmosphere, 23 miles above the Earth, and is believed to be a leftover from rocks trying to become a planet more than four billion years ago.
Lucy McFadden, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, who not part of the study, was among the many who praised the findings as an important part of understanding our solar system. She said:
"This is a look back in time and it came to us.”
Co-author of the study and NASA cosmic mineralogist Michael Zolensky, said:
"It's a beautiful example of looking at an earlier stage of planet development."
Among the components found in the space rocks were the metals iron and nickel, and organics such as graphites, Zolensky said.
The most interesting he added were the:
..."nanodiamonds." These diamonds are formed by collisions in space and high pressure and they are all over the rocks, making them glitter.
The discovery also afforded scientists the opportunity to further study asteroid composition, and search for ways to avert a disastrous collision with Earth.
Zokensky said:
…it also serves as a lesson for the future if this asteroid's big brother comes hurtling toward Earth.
Blowing it up like in the Bruce Willis movie "Armageddon" wouldn't be smart because this type of asteroid turns out to be very much like a "traveling sandpile," Zolensky said. "If you blow it up, all the pieces are heading toward Earth.
Simon “Pete” Worden, NASA Ames Research Center director, also a study co- author, has been a longtime advocate of a worldwide program to plan and prepare for asteroids or comets impacting Earth. He said:
"The real important issue is to understand the physics of these objects."
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