I’m on an early morning bus from Zagora to Tata and into the Sahara. My eyes are half open. The other-worldy landscape flashes by. The barren, rocky vistas between towns is fitting. After all, I’m in the heart of meteorite country, on my way to find out about meteorites in Morocco.
Before my trip, Shakir, a local from Zagora, invited me to his home to see his collection. Most of the meteorites he acquired from nomads. After preparing some tea, he opened a box where his precious stones were tucked away. He showed me several specimens. He was sure they were all meteorites.
But how did he know they were the real thing?
The Meteorite Hunting Expert of Morocco
Abderrahmane Ibhi from Ibn Zohr University in Agadir and his colleagues are partly responsible. I’m meeting them in Tata at an event where they will brief locals about the characteristics of meteorites and hold a star-gazing evening. They have been organising such events in the south of Morocco since 2006. This has helped locals become meteorite experts and pass on the knowledge. Shakir and a few other collectors I’ve met all know Abderrahmane Ibhi’s name.
“I’m a bit of a celebrity in the region,” he tells me. The people call him “Ibhi.” It’s his last name.
When Shakir found out I was meeting Ibhi, he asked if I could take one of his rocks to get his opinion. He was sure (but apparently not completely sure) that his rocks were meteorites. I took one of the small, heavy dark rocks from his collection. After the talk, Ibhi would be available to identify people’s finds.
Sitting in a packed auditorium, I found out why the area is a prime spot for meteorite hunting. Clear skies and the lack of noise make it easier to spot a fireball hurtling to the ground. Fresh meteorites are more valuable. This is because their composition is still intact. The longer they spend on the ground, the more Earthly components they acquire. In addition, space rocks are easier to see in the desert due to the colour contrast with the sand and the often windswept surface.
Important Meteorites in Morocco
There have been several important finds near Tata. The most famous find being the Martian meteorite of Tissint. It blasted apart in the sky in July 2011. It’s rare to find rocks originating from the Red Planet. Only five have ever been found on Earth. Pieces are worth up to 1,000 Euros per gram!
Meteorites originating from asteroids are the most common. Although, rare pieces of the moon are often recovered.
Once the talk ends, a crowd of collectors, students and turban-clad nomads gather outside around Ibhi. In his lab he performs various tests to confirm whether or not a rock is a meteorite. He doesn’t have his lab equipment here, but a close-up view through a magnifying glass usually does the trick. One of the tell-tale signs is black skin – or fusion crust – caused by the rock’s fiery journey. However, desert rocks can look similar due to the extreme heat. The rock must fulfill other criteria as well.
Meteorites are typically denser than their earthly counterparts and are usually magnetic. Chrondites – the most common type to land on Earth – are filled with minerals that form circular grains.
When it’s my turn to show Shakir’s rock to Ibhi, I wait in anticipation as he holds up the specimen to the sunlight. It doesn’t take him long to give me an answer.
“It’s not a meteorite,” he says. “Not by a long shot.”
I’m disappointed that I won’t have positive news for Shakir. However soon after I’m back in Zagora, there is news of a new meteorite fall in a nearby village. The rocky showers from space don’t seem to be subsiding. Before long, he should be able to top up his collection with some genuine specimens that may be even more unique and valuable.
About the Author
Sandrine Ceurstemont is a freelance science writer currently based in Morocco. Her interests range from bizarre animal behaviour to the unknowns of the vast world underwater to new robots. Since living in Morocco, she has become interested in local innovations and has written about one of the world’s largest solar power plants in Ouarzazate. She frequently writes for New Scientist and the BBC.