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Cosmic dust expert Marc Fries examines tiny rock samples from the Pacific seafloor. (Ocean Exploration Trust / Nautilus Live Photo / Susan Poulton)

A research ship has recovered at least two bits of molten rock from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that scientists say could have come from a meteorite.

The preliminary findings are the result of an unprecedented survey conducted this week by the Exploration Vessel Nautilus in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) off the coast of Washington state.

If scientists are correct, the two flecks of rock identified today could be the first pieces of a meteorite recovered from the ocean after its descent was observed.

The meteorite in question was spotted on March 7 as it flared through the sky and into the Pacific. Marc Fries, cosmic dust curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, analyzed the eyewitness reports as well as radar readings and other data to zero in on a roughly half-mile-wide (square-kilometer) area where fragments of the meteorite should have ended up.

Fries’ analysis suggested that about 2 tons’ worth of meteoritic material fell into the ocean, in pieces ranging from mere flecks to 5-inch-wide fragments.

Over the course of seven hours on Monday, two remotely operated vehicles surveyed the site, about 300 feet beneath the ocean surface.

Fries and his colleagues used a sediment scoop and a suction hose sampler to vacuum up promising samples of silt from the seafloor. Magnets and other instruments helped them sift through the muck.

Today, the team highlighted the discovery of two small fragments showing the signs of fusion crust —  bits of a meteorite’s exterior that melted and flowed as they blazed through the atmosphere. The fragments look like blobs of pottery glaze and measure about a tenth of an inch (2 millimeters) across.

“We now have samples, and we couldn’t be happier,” Fries said in a KCPQ report.

Fusion crust fragments
The Nautilus’ search turned up two small fragments of fusion crust. These images of the fragments were captured through a DIY microscopy rig that makes use of a DSLR camera and a Magiscope field microscope. (Ocean Exploration Trust / Nautilus Live Photos / Susan Poulton)

During the weeks to come, the fragments will be analyzed further to confirm whether they came from March’s meteorite, and Fries will look for still more bits in the samples of silt.

Confirmed meteorite samples will be housed at the Smithsonian Institution. Eventually, it’ll be up to the Meteoritical Society to determine whether there’s enough material in the bits to qualify as a formally named meteorite.

The meteorite hunt was just one of the activities planned as part of the E/V Nautilus’ expedition, which is led by Nicole Raineault of the Ocean Exploration Trust.

Support for this week’s expedition is being provided by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Ocean Exploration Trust and the National Geographic Society. The meteorite-hunting team also includes scientists from the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, NASA and the University of Washington.

NautilusLive.org is providing streaming video from the E/V Nautilus, and updates are also available via the @EVNautilus Twitter account and National Geographic’s Open Explorer mission log.

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