On Monday, the exploration vessel Nautilus, flagship of the Ocean Exploration Trust in Connecticut, embarked on a four-day mission to search for a sunken two-ton meteorite on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Its efforts yielded two tiny fragments of molten rock on the very first day after nearly eight hours of mapping a specific area of the ocean floor, Nautilus Live announced on Tuesday.
The two rock fragments, about two to three millimeters wide (or roughly a tenth of an inch), could be the very first meteorite bits to ever be retrieved from the bottom of the ocean, reports The Seattle Times.
According to the media outlet, the two microscopic rock fragments were recovered from the last soil sample of the day. The science team that discovered the fragments, made up of the Nautilus crew and NASA Cosmic Dust Curator Dr. Marc Fries, is now awaiting confirmation that the rock pieces have indeed come from outer space.
Their origin will be established after a close look under the microscope, but Fries is optimistic that the retrieved fragments are remnants from the same meteorite that the team set out to find.
Commenting on the results of Monday’s search mission, Fries could barely contain his elation.
“I could not be happier. This has been the experience of a lifetime.”
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the two-ton meteorite crashed into the Pacific Ocean on March 7, splintering into several larger fragments. After analyzing data recorded by weather radars, Fries was able to pinpoint the main impact zone to a patch of ocean of about 0.4 square miles (one square kilometer), some 16 miles (25 kilometers) off the coast of Washington state.
The Nautilus was tasked with scanning this swath of ocean floor and deployed two deep-sea robots, known as remote operated vehicles (ROVs), to investigate the area and retrieve samples.
Dubbed Hercules and Argus, these robotic submarines are equipped with a scoop and a magnetic wand installed specifically for this mission, as well as a suction tube to gather sediment samples from the bottom of the ocean.
After scouring the soft and muddy seafloor for several hours, Nautilus’ ROVs eventually managed to find the two tiny fragments of rock nestled inside a small pit, said Fries.
“The seafloor was like a billiard table and there was this one little pit where it looked like something fell into it.”
Monday’s dive — which occurred from approximately 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. EDT (16:00 to 23:00 GMT; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. local Washington time), reports Space.com — will be followed by another one on July 5, notes Nautilus Live. Anyone who’s curious to see the action first-hand can follow the mission live on Nautiluslive.org.
Fries is convinced that the two rock fragments are only the beginning and that the Nautilus expedition will stumble upon even more samples presumably left behind by the crashing meteorite.
“I’m certain we’re going to find more than two little fragments,” he said.
Once he gets back to his research lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the Cosmic Dust Curator intends to examine the sediment samples once again, in hopes of detecting minuscule fragments that might have been overlooked.
“Small isn’t a problem. We’re used to dealing with samples that are literally specks,” he pointed out.
If the two rock fragments turn out to have come from the two-ton meteorite — the biggest one to fall in the United States in the last two decades — they would make for a “fantastic” find, says astronomy professor Don Brownlee, from the University of Washington.
Chiming in on the importance of this discovery, Brownlee stated that meteorites are one of the crucial keys to unlocking the secrets of the early solar system.
“They’re our major information source about the early solar system. They are the only records we have of what really happened.”