Hunt For Space Rocks Turns Up Perfect Sample For Lab On A Chip Testing
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Have you ever had a solution that needed a problem? No, I’m not saying that backwards. That’s the strange predicament that Peter Willis and his team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) found themselves in recently.
“My team and I came up with a new lab on a chip,” said Willis, a scientist at JPL’s Microdevices Lab. “It essentially miniaturizes an automated sample processing and analysis instrument that could be put aboard future spacecraft and sent to distant planets, moons and asteroids. One challenge we have is finding new and interesting samples to try our chip on.”
The team had already gone rock hunting into some truly unique and interesting areas, trying to find samples for the “chip lab.” Up to this point, they had tested it on a variety of items including trilobite fossils from the lava field in Amboy, California, and samples collected near a hydrothermal vent in Yosemite National Park.
These samples gave the team good data but the chip was designed for off-world use. They really needed those kinds of samples to test it on. On the evening of August 21, 2012, just such a sample dropped out of the sky, literally. A large fireball turned the night sky to daylight over a mountain range halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City.
“We first heard about the Battle Mountain meteorite on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 5,” said Willis. “We were on the road to Nevada the next afternoon.”
Meteorites are the leftover bits of asteroids and comet that fall to Earth. Though many meteorites impact the Earth, the challenge is getting to them soon enough to be useful. The longer they are on the planet, the more contaminated they are by the corrosive effects of Earthly elements.
The lab on a chip was designed to look for extraterrestrial chemical markers and amino acids, so to give it a valid trial run, Willis and crew needed a fresh-from-the-skies sample.
Packing hiking gear and a lot of water into their SUV, Willis and his colleagues set out for Battle Mountain, Nevada. Acting as navigator, J.P. Kirby, senior scientist from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, hitched a ride.
Kirby was the best choice for navigator because when a meteorite is spotted, it is usually hurtling through the sky tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of feet above the ground. This leaves a lot of room for error in trying to find the impact point.
“You read stories where people are taking their dog on a walk or do something else equally as innocuous and they stumble upon a meteorite,” said Kirby. “Sometimes dumb luck does play a role in meteorite finds, but we were on a tight schedule, and the Battle Mountain area is big, hilly and treacherous, so a plan was definitely in order.”
Kirby worked with Mark Fries, also from the Planetary Science Institute and Galactic Analytics, LLC, to plan out their expedition. They used weather radar data and anecdotal testimony from some folks who witnessed the fireball in creating a probable impact zone. Kirby and Fries then overlaid this map onto a topographical map of Battle Mountain on a tablet computer that would be easy to move around with.
“The first day, we covered 6 miles [10 kilometers] of mountainous terrain on foot but didn’t find anything but terrestrial rocks and the occasional whiptail lizard,” said Willis. “The next day was going to be our last shot, so we planned to drive much deeper into the estimated impact zone. The problem was, the most negotiable route ended up taking us through an active mine claim. We quickly found out that miners are not much interested in rocks from space.”
Unannounced visitors in gold mine country are not met with a lot of friendliness, it seems.
“We were fixing a flat when they drove up and told us to turn around,” said Willis. “We needed to get the tire repaired anyway, so we headed back to town to regroup and look for a different route which didn’t cross mining land.”
The team was thankful their SUV had 4-wheel drive capabilities with the new route. They negotiated narrow, sloping, unpaved, sand-flooded switchbacks to reach the new search area. The going was slow enough that by the time they arrived it was mid-afternoon. The team searched rather fruitlessly for the next three hours, fanning out in different directions. At 4:30, as they were deciding to call it quits because they didn’t want to have to go back down the mountain in the dark, JPL’s Josh Schoolcraft saw the jet-black rock.
“I knew right away it was what we were looking for,” said Schoolcraft. “It was a carbonized, unweathered black mass, unlike anything else we had seen in our two days of searching. It clearly had not been there for very long.”
The team soon gathered around their 3-inch-wide, 1.4-pound bit of space debris.
“Initially, everyone was basically freaking out,” said Willis. “Then we got down to business and took pictures before collecting the meteorite in a sterile manner.”
Taking the meteorite back to the SUV, Willis heard more shouting and thought they had discovered another bit of the meteorite.
“But it was just an irritated rattlesnake,” said Willis. “He went back into his hole and we went home, with a fresh chunk of outer space sealed in a sample bag.”
The Battle Mountain meteorite is currently at JPL’s facility undergoing analysis by the lab-on-a-chip.