The Carancas meteorite landed in Puno, Peru on 15 September 2007, around 11.45am. The impact site is remote, at altitude, and close to Lake Titicaca – right on the Peru/Bolivia border.
Initial reports were confused. There was a crater. There was a mushroom cloud. People and animals were being affected by poison gas. Buildings had been hit and damaged by the falling debris.
Once things calmed down it became clear that a sizeable object had overflown Titicaca and buried itself in the soft soil of Carancas. It threw material to over 150m, excavating a crater several meters deep and about 14m across:
The Carancas crater. Photo credit: Mike Farmer
Well-know meteorite hunter Michael Farmer arrived at the site 2 weeks after the event, accompanied by two colleagues. The fall attracted controversy and generated a good deal of press coverage. Not for the first time, it raised the perennial debate about meteorite hunters: are they simple cultural profiteers? Are they people taking personal risks at their own expense for the benefit of science? Both? (You can read Mike’s own account).
My own view is simple. There are nowhere near enough well-funded scientific outfits willing and able to recover the material which showers us annually. If they aren’t recovered – and quickly, before they become contaminated, weathered or lost – then the loss to science is incalculable. The Apollo missions returned a total of 382kg of moon rock, at a cost of $100bn at today’s prices – around $250 million dollars per kilo.
Other than meteorites, and a few grains recovered from high-altitude aircraft and spacecraft, these are the only examples we have of extra-terrestrial material we have to analyse. If not for people who are prepared to finance their own expeditions, sometimes at considerable personal risk, we wouldn’t have them. So I support their endeavours. If they make the contributions for research and also turn a profit selling to collectors, so be it – they’re taking the risks, they should be able to reap the benefits.
In the case of Carancas, through a combination of politics and local government decisions, very little of the material was recovered. From the size of the crater, it’s obvious that the object was large – perhaps several tonnes. But to date, only 342g has been recovered, and the rest – very soft, friable material – is likely lost forever.
Here’s my small specimen of Carancas. It’s not large, but then there’s not very much to go around!