Danish turnover meteorites

By Phil Plait | March 15, 2009 9:14 am

In January, a very bright meteor called a bolide or fireball streaked across the north Atlantic skies, and was seen over Denmark and Sweden. Now it’s being reported that German meteorite hunter Thomas Grau has found fragments of it on an island off the coast of Denmark. Here’s the story in German and in in Danish. [Update: more info (in Danish) and pictures are at the Geologisk Museum site. Thanks to commenter jf below for that!].

Meteorites found on an island off Denmark

Apparently (using Babel fish and my own rusty knowledge of German) Grau studied the video of the fireball and collected eyewitness reports, and used this to track the path of the meteor. A lot of it lay over water, but there was an island in a likely spot called Lolland. He searched, and found small chunks of meteorites there. Normally, I’d have my doubts that these were associated with that particular fireball, but he claims there were in a small crater, which indicates a fresh fall. The picture shown here is from Grau himself of the rocks in situ.

Actually, I’ve never seen meteorites piled up like that before, though my experience with this is limited. One or two skeptical alarm bells are going off in my head — the odd pattern, coupled with no eye witnesses on the island itself that night (it was cloudy), plus what are the chances of finding such a small cluster of meteorites on a 1200 square kilometer island? — but they have been given to a museum which I hope is studying them thoroughly. I’m not saying this has been faked, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just weird. I’d like to get more information on this.

The meteorites are carbonaceous chondrites, a relatively rare class of rock that are considered unprocessed; that is, pretty much unchanged since their formation out of the solar nebula. This makes them very old — I have a small specimen that’s been dated as 4.57 billion years old, older than the Earth itself! — and very valuable, as they are tracers of what conditions were like while the planets were forming. They also sometimes have amino acids in them, meaning that by studying them we can get some insight into what the precursor conditions for life were like in the solar system.

So if this all pans out, it’ll be a major find for science. I’ll note that this was why I was so excited about the Texas fireball in February— the more eye witnesses you get, and video of course, the more likely you can find the meteorites themselves… and in that case some were eventually found, too. So if you see a bright fireball, report it!

Tip o’ the Whipple shield to BABloggees Christian Schwietzke and Lars Nielsen.


Comments (39)

  1. Waterdog

    How in the world could they end up in a pile like that after streaking in from the sky? That seems impossible to me. Let us know if this turns out to be a hoax.

  2. Eddie Janssen

    Phil, I share your scepticism:

    Announcements like these two make me nervous:
    “Diese Brocken haben sich seit 4,5 Milliarden Jahren nicht verändert, sie sind aus dem Urgestein des Universums”, sagt Vornhusen. “Der Stein trägt bestimmt Überraschungen in sich”, ist auch Grau überzeugt. “Vielleicht birgt er sogar organische Chemie.”

    (These rocks have not changed in 4.5 billion years, they are from the basic building blocks of the universe [Urgestein des Universums; I hope this is the correct translation. I am Dutch so German is not my native language]. The rock will certainly have surprises for us, perhaps even organic chemistry.)

    Primeval rocks of the Universe? (I hope he means solar system!)
    Perhaps there is organic chemistry inside?
    If you have to sell these rocks it doesnot hurt to make them more interesting and sensational than they are.

  3. RAF

    They look for all the world like charcoal briquets to me.

  4. Sili

    They can’t actually be sold freely now – they’ve been declared ‘national treasure’ (the same thing happens to good fossils – used to be only cultural artifacts, but the definition was expanded some years ago).

    That said, the finder does get reïmbursed by the state, so of course there’s still room for mischief.

  5. jf

    The exhibiting Geological Museum in Copenhagen has better pictures and an article in Danish:

  6. RAF summed it up (although that IS one appearance they CAN have). Lots of skeptical alarms going off too.

  7. Lazze

    According to Henning Haack at the Geological Museum in Denmark, they are genuine carbonaceous chondrites. That obviously doesn’t necessarily mean they are from that specific fireball, or even that they fell where they are said to be found.
    But, that being said, couldn’t an explanation to the pile be, that this piece broke up on impact?

  8. There’s a much longer Danish article about it here: http://politiken.dk/videnskab/article668921.ece (from the Danish national newspaper Politiken). In the article, Danish lecturer and “meteorite expert” Henning Haack from the Danish Geological Musuem (part of Copenhagen University) is cited as saying exactly what you say about them being unprocessed and how big of a deal it is. And it is also written that it is something that will be examined closer by him soon (and that he really can’t wait).

    The article says that they already have looked a bit at it in a microscope, and mr. jf (earlier comment) has already shared a link directly from the Danish Geological Museum’s website where there are close-ups in the right hand side of the page. If they have already looked into it this much (or are going to in the near future), I’m getting doubts that it’s a hoax (but do remember that I’m not an expert at all).

    In the article, Mr. Haack also encourages people on the Lolland island to get out and look for more pieces that may be spread around on the island.

    Additionally, this is/was also a pretty big story in the national media over here.

  9. OFF TOPIC: Dr Plait, over on JREF there is an interesting thread going on: http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=137431

    I know that the articles cited are mostly about that biology stuff, but I saw a post that said something interesting:

    To make the ribosomes, George Church, a Harvard geneticist, and postdoctoral researcher Mike Jewett first disassembled ribosomes from Escherichia coli, a common lab bacterium, into its component molecules. They then used enzymes to put the various RNA and protein components back together. When put together in a test tube, these components spontaneously formed into functional ribosomes. While scientists have previously reconstituted ribosomes, which are made up of a complex configuration of RNA and proteins, as far back as the 1960s, these earlier versions were poor protein producers, and were created under chemical conditions very different than that of a normal cell.

    Emphasis mine, well, Meadmaker’s reall. Methinks that the gaps just got smaller again!

  10. Doh! Messed up formatting… The bolded part was just supposed to be: When put together in a test tube, these components spontaneously formed into functional ribosomes.

  11. Chaos

    Eddie, T-Online News isn´t exactly the National Geographic. I wouldn´t base too much skepticism on typical exaggerations in the media, especially not media who call a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite “as old as the universe”.

    These things do look like chunks of coal, though, and now that Phil mentions it, it does seem odd to see them piled up like that. Weird, weird, weird…

    By the way, google ´”Thomas Grau”+meteorite´ to see more about the guy who found this one.

  12. dziban

    Anyone else see the headline and automatically think of pastries?

  13. JMoffatt

    “Anyone else see the headline and automatically think of pastries?”

    Yes, I was hoping they’d have icing on them and have apple filling. Now that would be a find.

  14. JMoffatt

    Ps they are likely fragments of the Primordial Pastry Planet.

  15. brisser

    as far as i understood from the news here in denmark, the one he found was in one piece – he had dug up the grass and soil where it supposedly fell – and then explained, that due to the “brittle’ness” of this piece of rock, it were now in several pieces. beats me.

  16. I prefer *apple* turnovers….

  17. Lolland—the land of lolcats?

  18. csrster

    The news broadcast showed photographs of holes in the ground in which the meteorites were found buried. They looked like small post holes rather than craters. The fact that the Museum of Geology has confirmed that they are meteorites is pretty convincing. The article at http://geologi.snm.ku.dk/nyheder_gm/nyhed13032009/ states that Thomas Grau, the discoverer, also carried out “countless” interviews with eyewitnesses on Lolland to help him track down the fall site. I must admit that I had a few scpetical doubts when I saw the first news broadcast, but the story seems to hang together. The geologists should be able to tell whether the meteorites are really recent and that would nail the identification with the 17th January bollide.

    Incidentally, Danes would find the description of Lolland as an island off the coast of Denmark quite amusing. Denmark consists mostly of islands, so an island off the coast of Denmark is just another bit of Denmark.

  19. TS

    Rimantas Says: Lolland—the land of lolcats?

    Nope, Land of chine immigrants who thought they were in Holland. :-0

  20. Lazze

    TS – Not far off actually, since part of the island is below sea-level :-)

  21. MadScientist

    @BA: It’s possible 1 rock hit and had since fractured (stepped on, run over, temperature cycling with water getting in fractures) so although the photo is peculiar there may not be any evidence to believe it’s not real. Of course it would be good to have the opinion of a successful meteorite hunter and “I’ve never seen it like that” is not a good enough reason to discount the claim.

  22. MadScientist


    If it looks like a post hole rather than a ‘crater’ (whatever people imagine a crater to be) then that’s actually very exciting because you can expect to find a rock with a diameter the size of the hole. In contrast if you see a large pit with ridges and so on, you can safely bet that the rock and its fragments are nothing near the dimensions of the pit. Imagine cannonballs making holes on the beach. The exploding type will leave huge pits while the non-exploding type just leaves holes the size of the shot and yet both shots were the same size.

  23. This is incredible, although I am very sceptic. A follow up blog post for what these turn out to be, woudl be stellar. Was wondering if the guys at the museum were going to get some propper goelogists onto it. I have been to the South Downs Planetarium Centre in the UK. The entrance gallery was full of space rocks. One of them was the size of a spec. Imagine trying to find a speck of space dust on the ground.


  24. I can’t believe none of you guys & gals used this line:
    Hamlet Act 1, scene 4, 87–91
    Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
    I’m with you, Marcellus, it sounds fishy!
    But then again, there are some master fishermen in Danmark.
    Keep us appraised of the situation, Phil!

  25. Initially I thought this was a pr picture – fragments from different find spots put next together for the photo. Then I learned this appeared to be how they were found – i.e., an in situ photograph.
    Thinking it over, and looking at the photo, I realised that what we could see here is a fragment broken up on impact. CM material (Carbonaceaous chondrite, Mighei type) is very brittle. And the outer side of the pile does seem to show partially fusion-crusted fragements. They also look very fresh, cocnsistent with a recent fall.
    And make no mistake: this would be a very expensive hoax if it is one. That little pile of CM material on the piucture is worth quite a bit due to the rarity of this material, commercially. Think 4-figure amounts in Dollars…

  26. Sorry for typing like a drunken monkey in the message above. Crappy keyboard, and I need my morning coffee….

  27. csrster

    Claire: I’m not sure what you mean by a “proper geologist”. I imagine a lecturer at Copenhagen University Geological Museum would be as “proper” a geologist as one could wish for. According to the museum website, Henning Haack has 73 publications to his credit, almost all of them on the subject of meteorites. I think he would know a carbonaceous chondrite when he sees one.

  28. Hey csrster,

    It was tongue in cheek, just that. Spelling errors in my post too. Good job I am not working today.

    I had stumbled upon Phil’s blog after commenting on Cosmic Variance a few times but when they sold it ‘to the man’, I was slingshotted here(planetary?) via Scov Mag. I then discover this magazine has astounding gravity.


  29. The material on the photographs on the website of the Danish National Geology Museum definitely is fresh carbonaceous chondrite material. Looks like CM or CV.

  30. Ruprecht

    It seems that Mr. Grau is quite good at finding meteorites. He has a website (& an email address):
    Unfortunately he hasn’t found the time to update his activities-page yet, but his other findings look impressive to me.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    When put together in a test tube, these components spontaneously formed into functional ribosomes.

    And just before that, a pair of scientists succeeded in making a tree analysis of ribosome parts. This shows how ribosomes grew successively to todays complexity by reusing parts.

    It is showcased on Talk Rational [Bokov, K. and Steinberg, S.V. (2009) A hierarchical model for evolution of 23S ribosomal RNA. Nature, 457, 977-980.] :

    The scheme of dependencies presented in Fig. 2b can help us to elucidate some details of the evolution of the large ribosomal subunit after the emergence of the proto-ribosome. Our analysis shows that stabilization of the proto-ribosome tertiary structure was a major aspect of the 23S rRNA evolution in the post-proto-ribosome era. […]

    Our results also demonstrate that, despite its visible complexity, the structure of 23S rRNA follows a rather simple principle and could have evolved in a relatively short time on the evolutionary scale. Each new insertion emerged randomly and was accommodated only if it made the ribosome more stable and effective as a transpeptidase. At early stages of evolution, the ribosome existed exclusively as an RNA body. Later, when the ribosome functioning became sufficiently effective to produce proteins, the latter started playing an important part in the ribosome structure. [My bold.]

    They manage to show the growth from the original proto-ribosome (the peptidyl-transferase centre) adding 59 parts, all the while with selection for increased functionality, including accommodation for the smaller subsidiary ribosome units. That is an origami in the higher school!

  32. matt

    is that the all connected if it is then it is possible and if not then not possible

  33. Grau – whom you can see in this TV clip reporting on the Danish success – is pretty famous in the German meteor(ite) community because he has found ways to triangulate strewn fields mostly from eyewitness interviews, something thought impossible until recently. Normally you need several good videos or all-sky images of a fireball to narrow down the impact area enough for a search to make sense.

  34. castletonsnob

    Shouldn’t that read “Danes turn over meteorites?” Or was the original some kind of pun?

  35. =)


  36. astrodoc

    Excuse me, but there is a really small probability for the rocks to be found all in one pile.

  37. Eric Palmer

    Well, I talked with Dr. Haack at this year’s Meteoritical Society meeting in France. He let me look at the data which was pretty cool. The meteorite is a CM chondrite and has the features that are characteristic of CM chondrites. They found the typical kamacite grains which are exclusive to meteorites. The meteorite also had the characteristic oxygen isotope ratio that defines CM meteorites. Earth rocks have a different ratio of 17O, 18O, 16O. Oxygen isotopes are an excellent way to identify classes of meteorites, lunar rocks or Earth rocks. The meteorite also contained cronstedtite and tochilinite, two minerals that are rare on Earth, but are excessively common in CM chondrites.

    In terms of the rock pile, when Grau found the meteorite, it was in one piece. The first thing he did was touch a magnet to it (meteorites are usually magnetic due to the large amounts of kamacite). When he did, the rock fell apart.

    In terms of longevity, CM chondrites are very susceptible to terrestrial weathering – i.e. they are too fragile in the highly corrosive environment. Haack expects that any other pieces of meteorite would be destroyed by now.


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