Sunday 25 February 2024

Looking for the Chinguetti Meteorite.

In 1916 a young French army officer called Captain Gaston Ripert reported being taken to see a giant meteorite in the Mauritanian desert, south of Chinguetti. The story is a strange one, with Ripert claiming he was taken blindfolded, at night, on a ten hour Camel ride into the desert, where he observed a huge iron structure 100 m long and 40 m wide, recovering a smaller, 4.5 kg meteorite from its surface. Shortly after returning to Chinguetti, where he was commander of the local Camel corps, Ripert reported that his guide, a local chief, was poisoned, leaving him unable to relocate the site.

The eccentric nature of this story led many people to dismiss it out of hand. It was not unusual for western travellers of the time to make up tales of wild adventure; some even paid ghostwriters to create particularly entertaining tales. However, officers in colonial armies were supposed to refrain from such nonsense, and some aspects of Ripert's story were hard to rectify with the story being complete fiction. 

During the past century a number of expeditions have sought to locate Ripert's meteorite, with the first in 1924, although by this time Ripert was stationed in Cameroon, and could only be communicated with by letters. This meant that the early searches concentrated on the area to the southwest of Chinguetti, although Ripert later clarified that the area he was taken to was probably to the southeast. The French naturalist and explorer Théodore Monod mounted a number of expeditions to find the meteorite, starting in 1934, but was unable to locate it. In the 1950s an expedition by the French army used a declinometer  (instrument for measuring magnetic declination) in a search for the meteorite, without success, and in the 1990s a team from the British TV station Channel 4 used a magnetometer during a search for the meteorite, but took only a few measurements.

Despite all this, there are a number of elements of the story suggest that it was not complete fiction, not the least of this being Ripert's willingness to talk to experts about his journey for the rest of his life. The smaller rock which Ripert recovered did prove to be a meteorite, albeit one which, when subjected to radionuclide analysis in 2001 was shown not to have been part of a larger body (radionuclides form near the surface of asteroids due to a constant bombardment by cosmic rays, but these can only penetrate a little way, so the radionuclides they form are absent from the interior of large bodies). Finally, Ripert reported observing metallic needles protruding from the large meteorite, which he tried unsuccessfully to break off, finding that they were too ductile (able to be deformed without losing toughness) for the tools he had at hand). In 2003, the American geologist and meteorite specialist William Cassidy reported similar ductile metal needles protruding from nickel-rich zones of iron meteorites, but this was clearly unknown to science in 1916.

A fragment of the smaller meteorite brought back by Gaston Ripert in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Wikimedia Commons.

In a paper published on the arXiv database at Cornell University on 21 February 2024, Robert Warren  of Salisbury in England, Stephen Warren of the Astrophysics Group at Imperial College London, and Ekaterini Protopapa of the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, describe the results of a more recent search for the Chinguetti Meteorite, and the prospects for either discovering its existence or proving its non-existence in the future.

Warren et al. began by collating remote-sensing data covering the region from multiple sources; they are reasonably confident that other researchers will have searched Google Earth for signs of the meteorite,  but they also accessed data from other sources, including the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, the Advanced Land Observing Satellite (ALOS), and Landsat.

Using the reasoning that the only way a 40 m high meteorite could have disappeared in the deserts of Mauritania is for it to have been covered by a sand dune, Warren et al. began by searching for a region of high dunes which could be reached from Chinguetti by Camel in under 10 hours. There are two bands of dunes close to Chinguetti; the Les Boucles field, most of which is within 20 km of the city, and the Batraz field, which is between 40 and 60 km to the southeast. Much of the intervening area is also covered by sand dunes, but these are not large enough to describe an object as that described by Ripert.

Map showing the high sand dunes, greater than 30 m height, to the south of Chinguetti. Warren et al. (2024).

Warren et al. made two trips into the desert from Chinguetta, in the company of experienced local chameliers, one lasting eleven days and one lasting six. They found that Camels typically travel at speeds of between 2.0 and 3.6 km per hour, assuming good terrain, with the maximum speed achieved by unburdened Camels being about 5.0 km per hour. 

However, even assuming that Ripert and his guide were riding Camels unburdened by anything other than themselves, it is unlikely that this maximum speed would have been achieved for 10 hours, because the primary concern of the chameliers is for the welfare of their Camels, which are not only the most important assets they own, but also their only way of getting back to safety should a problem arise. This meant that if Warren et al.'s chameliers expected a journey to take four hours, they would travel for two hours, then give the Camels a three hour break to rest and feed, before completing the journey, something they were quite inflexible about. Neither would they travel in a straight line on anything other than the flattest terrain, but instead would zig-zag to avoid taking the Camels over steps and ledges, and would never take their Camels over the tops of dunes.

Ripert himself mentioned taking several detours during his journey, which makes a journey 50 km in a straight line from Chinguetta even less plausible. However, for the sake of convenience, Warren et al. take the area within 50 km of the city as a search area. This includes the more distant Batraz Dune Field, which Warren et al. consider unlikely, although they do concede that there is a route along a dry river bey which could bring a determined Camel rider this far in 10 hours if breaks were neglected. They also rule out the area of the Les Boucles Dune Field which lies within 10 km of the city, reasoning that Ripert, who was in charge of the local Camel Corps, would have recognised a location in this area. 

A sand dune in the Les Boucles Dune Field to the south of Chinguetta. Bruno Locatelli/Google Maps.

Having defined their search area, Warren et al. then searched their dataset for dunes large enough to have covered the meteorite described by Ripert. According to Ripert's description, the northeastern side of the meteorite was already covered by a dune at the time when he visited. The area is noted for its strong, prevailing winds, which blow northeast to southwest more-or-less constantly all year round, causing sand dunes to migrate in the same direction, and Ripert stated in 1932 that he thought it possible that the meteorite would already have been covered by the dune. Taking Ripert's estimate that the meteorite was 40 m high, it would require a dune more than 40 m high to cover it.

Sand dunes in a desert do not typically stack up against one-another; instead, they are usually discrete structures, with flat spaces between them. Warren et al. identified dunes higher than 30 m high in their remote sensing dataset, in order to give an error of margin, creating a map showing dunes which meet this criterion within the two dune fields. Since dunes are unlikely to have moved more than 100  m since 1916, the meteorite, if buried, must be within 100 m of the western edge of the dune covering it. 

Since a height of 30-40 m is reached within 300-400 m of the western flank of the dunes, it would in theory be possibly for a walk along the western flank of the dunes with a magnetometer (a passive instrument that measures changes in the Earth's magnetic field), and be confident of passing within 500 m of the meteorite, a distance at which it ought to be highly detectable.

Warren et al. also not that a magnetic survey of the area has been carried out by aircraft on behalf of the Mauritanian Ministry of Petroleum Energy and Mines by the Fugro geological surveying company, using funds provided by the World Bank, and this data has subsequently been made available to teams of scientists working on other projects. With this in mind, Warren et al. wrote to the Ministry requesting access to the data, but have yet to receive an answer.

Between 13 and 17 December 2022 Warren et al. carried out a magnetometer survey of the eastern part of the Les Boucles Dune Field on foot, covering the western edges of six large dunes, based upon which they are confident that the presence of a large iron meteorite beneath these dunes can be ruled out. Based upon the time this took, they estimate that a survey of all the potential dunes would require an expedition lasting three weeks. 

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