Fossil meteorites are one of the hardest geological treasures to discover – but now a spate of finds is revealing surprises about Earth’s ancient atmosphere
18 August 2021
HE IS more or less over it now, but Birger Schmitz once had an odd habit. He would visit a train station or an airport – any public building with a large expanse of stone floor would do – and shuffle around on his hands and knees, eyes glued to the ground. “I have had problems with security guards,” he admits. “If you start crawling around in the dark corners of an airport, people become suspicious.”
Schmitz is no terrorist. He is one of the world’s foremost hunters of fossil meteorites, ancient extra-terrestrial stones. It so happens that limestone floor tiles are an excellent place to look for them. Others prefer remote Australian deserts or Antarctic ice. But whether your searching ground is mundane or exotic, it is an inestimably difficult task.
Only about two olive-sized meteorites fall on an area the size of Wales each year. Your odds of finding one aren’t good even if you know what to look for. Now imagine looking for a meteorite that fell millions of years agobefore being entombed in solid rock like the bones of a dinosaur. It is so difficult that it is almost laughable.
But it isn’t impossible. That much has become apparent over the past few years, as fossil meteorite hunters have unearthed them, first in dribs and drabs, then in huge numbers. It turns out they have a unique story to tell: contemporary meteorites tell us about how the solar system grew into its current form. Fossil meteorites, on the other hand, hold information about the conditions on Earth during its deep history that we can’t get any other way. …