Human Journey

Spain’s Christmas Eve Fireball


The holiday season can become a real doldrums for science news, as many universities and research organizations head out on winter break, and the major journals take a cue from them and largely suspend publishing.

—Photo by Rebecca Hale/NGS

Hence the year-end “top ten” lists and “festive science” stories come marching out like toy soldiers in a holiday parade:

Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker has a nice evolving roundup of the sciencey “top ten” stories floating around on teh Internets [uh, just don’t look too close at that first one… ].

But the neatest holiday science story I’ve seen so far—and the one I’ll leave you with for the rest of the Xmas weekend—is the 150th anniversary of Spain‘s biggest meteorite.

On Christmas Eve of 1858, people in the sleepy farming town of Molina de Segura “saw a magnificent ball of fire appear, which shone with a brilliant, blinding light and all the colours of the rainbow, obscured the light of the moon and descended majestically from the sky,” according to a new report on the impactor in Astronomy and Geophysics.


—Illustration courtesy Concejalía de Cultura del Ayto. de Molina de Segura

A pair of Spanish scientists drafted the review paper to commemorate the landing, combining historical records with modern studies of the bits of space rock found after the crash.

The largest chunk, at 248 pounds (112.5 kilograms), was recovered during the next year’s barley harvest by the farmer whose land got smacked.

He donated it to Queen Isabel II, who in turn gave it to the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid (linked page en español), where it has been housed since 1863.

Aside from being the largest meteorite recovered from Spain, the hunk of rock is pretty common as these things go. The report authors note that the Molina de Segura sample is an ordinary chondrite, a stony type of meteorite that makes up more than 80 percent of all known space rocks.

But being abundant doesn’t make one any less special, especially a humungoid specimen like the Spanish impactor. Chondrites, after all, are our best records of what existed in the early solar system, roughly 4.5 billion years ago.

They also contain traces of carbon-based molecules, leading to ongoing speculation that meteorites could have seeded Earth’s oceans with the ingredients for sparking life.

Being fairly common, and thus not beholden to sit encased in museum collections, meteorites also make great necklaces... [I’m looking at you, last-minute Xmas shoppers.]

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