Asteroid that exploded in German skies is rare aubrite

Asteroid: Irregular gray and white mottled rock next to a small black cube with white letters on it.
This is one of the meteorites – rocks from space – recovered from the asteroid that exploded in the skies over Germany on January 21, 2024. Analysis shows that it’s a rare type of meteorite, known as an aubrite. Image via Museum für Naturkunde Berlin by Laura Kranich/ SETI.

Asteroid that hit Germany was a rare type

Astronomers discovered a new asteroid last January 21, 2024, just hours before it struck Earth’s atmosphere above Germany. As it fell, producing a fireball, the little asteroid dropped meteorites – or fragments of itself – onto the countryside below. Meteorite hunters west of Berlin got to work and soon discovered asteroid fragments, which they then sent to labs for scientific analysis On February 5, 2024, the SETI Institute said the rock from space was a rare type: an aubrite. They said the fragments might have originated on Mercury.

The SETI Institute scientists said aubrites are tricky to find. Most meteorites that hit Earth have a thin black outer crust, resulting from their fiery passage through Earth’s atmosphere. But aubrites have a mostly translucent, glassy crust.

Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute traveled to Germany to help hunt for the meteorites. He said in a statement:

They were devilishly difficult to find because, from a distance, they look like other rocks on Earth. Close up, not so much … We only spotted the meteorites after a Polish team of meteorite hunters had identified the first find and could show us what to look for.

It was Jenniskens’ 4th trip to the site of an asteroid impact where remnant meteorites were indeed found on the ground. The previous three were in Sudan in 2008, Botswana in 2018, and France in 2023.

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An official classification

Scientists at the Natural History Museum of Berlin examined one of the meteorites with an electron beam microprobe, which is a non-destructive tool that determines the chemical composition of small volumes of solid materials. They found the mineralogy and chemical composition was that of an aubrite. Then, they submitted their result to the International Nomenclature Commission of the Meteoritical Society on February 2, 2024. The society examined the meteorite and confirmed their classification.

Aubrites are named for a village in France: Aubrés. On September 14, 1836, a meteorite fell in this location and showed evidence of a violent origin. These magnesium-rich, igneous rocks might have originated on Mercury.

Ansgar Greshake, scientific head of the Natural History Museum of Berlin’s meteorite collection, said:

So far, there is only material from eleven other observed falls of this type in meteorite collections worldwide.

Christopher Hamann of the Natural History Museum of Berlin further described rare aubrites:

Aubrites do not look like what people generally imagine meteorites to look like. Aubrites look more like a gray granite and consist mainly of the magnesium silicates enstatite and forsterite. It contains hardly any iron and the glassy crust, which is usually a good way to recognize meteorites, looks completely different than that of most other meteorites. Aubrites are therefore difficult to detect in the field.

The recovery of the meteorites

Meteorite hunters were on high alert on January 21, when reports first came in that an asteroid was going to impact Earth’s atmosphere above Germany. Observers in the area watched a bright burst of light as the asteroid exploded. Though small, the asteroid was large enough to survive in the form of small fragments that showered the countryside west of Berlin. And on January 26, 2024, the Natural History Museum of Berlin said that searchers found suspected fragments the size of a walnut.

A group of young and old people in coats, standing around smiling. One man has a tinfoil square with a rock on it.
Meteorite hunters came up big in the fields west of Berlin in late January. They found what they believed to be a fragment of the small asteroid that hit over Germany on January 21, 2024. See more photos of meteorites below. Image via Cevin Dettlaff/ Natural History Museum of Berlin.

Other meteorite hunters have also been sharing their finds on social media.

Asteroid impact predicted beforehand

In the late-night hours of January 21, 2024 – 90 minutes before impact over European skies – NASA said a small asteroid would hit Earth’s atmosphere. And hit it did. The space rock struck on schedule above an area west of Berlin, Germany. The asteroid was only about 1 meter (3 feet) in diameter. It posed no danger to people on the ground.

Soon after, footage of the fireball in the skies over Germany started coming in on social media.

Asteroid hunter Krisztián Sárneczky of Budapest, Hungary, discovered the asteroid only shortly before impact. Sárneczky has become famous for last-minute discoveries such as this one, including the discoveries of an asteroid that fell over France in 2023 and another that hit over the Arctic Ocean in 2022. This is only the 8th asteroid detected before impact.

A small asteroid hit Earth overnight, lighting up skies over Germany.

The small asteroid received the preliminary designation Sar2736. Then the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center gave it a formal label of 2024 BX1.

Videos of the asteroid impact

As it blazed through Earth’s atmosphere, the small asteroid appeared as a fireball, that is, a very bright meteor or shooting star.

News of the imminent impact

Social media lit up with reports of the impending impact.

Bottom line: Scientists analyzing the meteorites left behind by the asteroid that hit Germany said they are a rare type known as an aubrite.

Via SETI Institute

February 7, 2024

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