As the meteorite specialist for the Beijing Planetarium, Baolin Zhang gets all kinds of unusual reports — like the dramatic (but ultimately specious) tale of a peasant woman who recently found a blue-ice "meteorite" in her yard.
But credible reports of a massive, oddly shaped and colored stone in the remote Altai Mountains of Xinjiang Uygur province (in northwest China) got his attention. So earlier this month he assembled a small team to check it out firsthand. The trek was cold and arduous, involving a rented jeep, borrowed horses, and even a camel to cross rugged terrain and rivers still swollen with snowmelt.
On the afternoon of July 16th, after reaching a mountainous crest 9,500 feet (2,900 m) up Zhang and his team finally spotted their objective: a large dark-brown stone jutting from the ground. It took only moments for him to realize what they'd found. "This is a huge iron meteorite," he exulted as cameras recorded the scene.
Based on the size of the oblong portion above ground, 7.5 feet (2.3 m) long and about half as wide, Zhang thinks its mass is roughly 25 tons — and it could perhaps top 30 tons. Such an enormous find would rank as one of the largest meteorites known, perhaps even surpassing China's current record-holder, the 28-ton Armanty iron, found in the same region in 1898.
Apparently the big stone's existence has been well known among locals for decades. A few scrawls of graffiti have been cut into the exterior, which also bears "saw marks" that expose the interior. As Zhang reports, "The surface was shiny silver, and I can clearly see exposed not only the iron-nickel composition but also the unique grid lines," called a Widmanstätten pattern, that are common among iron meteorites.
Interestingly, the meteorite is wedged beneath an even larger granite slab, and apparently both were dragged to their current locations long ago by glaciers. It's not yet clear when or how the massive Xinjiang stone will be excavated — though this would seem too magnificent a prize to simply leave in place. The Armanty iron is on display outside the Xinjiang Geology and Mineral Museum in Urumqi, the region's capital city.
Conceivably, the Xinjiang and Armanty meteorites are part of the same fall; tests should soon establish whether they are siblings or just happen to be enormous unrelated hunks of meteoritic metal that fell to Earth from interplanetary space.