The world’s largest space rock was found – and lost – in the Sahara in 1916. Did it ever exist?

A meteorite is said to exist in the Sahara that would make all other meteorites look like pebbles. It was an object the size of a skyscraper, reported by Western observers in 1916, but then disappeared without a trace. Now scientists in Britain have set out to solve the mystery using radar data and elevation models.

The story sounds like something straight out of the adventures of a young Indiana Jones. In 1916, French consular officer Gaston Ripert, stationed in Mauritania (then under French control), reported to colleagues that he had witnessed a huge meteorite in the desert outside the town of Chinguetti. After allegedly overhearing a conversation between camel drivers about an “iron hill,” Ripert embarked on a night mission to the object with a local chief who either forbade him from carrying a compass or blindfolded him, according to translations. The chief was later poisoned.

The secrecy was certainly justified – if the story is to be believed – because Ripert’s accounts describe a meteorite so large that he described it as an “iron mountain.” It was at least 100 meters long and 40 meters high. By comparison, the largest known verified meteorite, called Hoba, has a diameter of 2.7 meters (8.9 feet).

Ripert gave intriguing descriptions of this iron mound and even managed to cut off a fragment, which weighed about 4.5 kilograms, which scientists at the time declared an important discovery. However, subsequent searches for the meteorite beginning in 1924 failed to find it. Ripert described it as almost covered in sand, so it is possible that it is now buried under the sands of the Sahara.

Scientists have been intrigued for decades whether this iron mound actually exists. Now, in a new yet-to-be-published preprint article, Robert Warren, Stephen Warren, and Ekaterini Protopapa have proposed the means to determine once and for all whether it existed and even where it can be found.

A satellite image of the region around Chnguetti, with a smaller portion highlighted as a promising location as they are found in areas with extensive sand dunes

This is where the Chinguetti meteorite may be hiding.

Image credits: Warren et al. 2024

The new work combined data from radars, digital elevation models and interviews with camel riders to narrow down possible locations for this object. If it existed, it would have to be covered by a dune at least 40 meters high, they say.

They have requested airborne magnetic data from the Mauritanian Ministry of Petroleum Energy and Mining, but the data has not been made available to them. Still, the team believes a three-week survey should allow them to cover the area they believe hides the meteorite. They actually explored a small part of the region on foot for three days, without success.

“It is possible that the meteorite became buried under the sand within a few years [of the initial discovery]’, write Warren et al. ‘And because the initial searches were in the wrong direction, it is conceivable that the meteorite was missed and remains hidden in the high dunes, still waiting to be discovered.’

But what if Ripert was wrong? A 2010 study concluded that his meteorite section, now in the US National Museum of Natural History, had broken off from a parent body no larger than 1.6 meters (5.25 feet), contradicting his claim . And yet he described the presence of metal needles that were too ductile to allow a sample to be taken by chiseling them off. Nickel-rich structures that are also ductile were confirmed in iron meteorites in 2003, but were unknown to science in 1916.

The researchers are confident that magnetic data will solve the mystery – and yet, if no large meteorite exists beneath the sand, Ripert nevertheless collected a sample of a meteorite somewhere and appeared to describe meteorite ductile needles that could be used for another would not be confirmed. 87 years.

“[A]”aeromagnetic data in the region south of Chinguetti… may finally resolve the question of the existence of the Chinguetti meteorite in a definitive way,” they concluded. “If the result is negative, however, the explanation of Ripert’s story would remain unresolved, and the problems of the ductile needles and the accidental discovery of the mesosiderite would remain.”

The research is available on the pre-print server ArXiv.

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