In Search of the Mid-Autumn Meteorite

2017-10-20 10:50:14

YUNNAN, Southwest China — As a white light illuminated the night sky on Oct. 4, the windows in Deqen County started to shake. Liu Jiewen, who had moved from Shanghai to the remote area on the Tibetan Plateau around six years ago, was drinking with friends who said they clearly felt vibrations. But Liu — an amateur travelogue writer who makes a living selling mountain delicacies at his shop — said he hadn’t been paying attention.

Almost immediately, Liu’s younger brother called him from the nearby town of Benzilan, right next to the Yunnan-Tibet Highway in northwestern Yunnan province. “There was a big oval moon flying across the sky, shining as bright as day,” Liu’s brother said. “It exploded and crashed into the mountain outside the town.” After hanging up the phone, Liu told his friends: “No need to make a fuss; it’s probably just some family setting off fireworks for the Mid-Autumn Festival.”

About two hours after the flash of light, one of Liu’s groups on messaging app WeChat started to heat up. Friends from as far as the city of Dali, more than 450 kilometers away from Deqen County, started posting videos of the phenomenon on WeChat Moments, the app’s newsfeed feature. Only then was Liu convinced that the bright light and vibrations were, in fact, caused by a cosmic event.

Locals record video footage of a suspected meteorite landing near Shangri-La, Yunnan province. By Lu Yunwen/Sixth Tone

Observation data from NASA recorded a meteor on Oct. 4 at 8:07 p.m. around Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The next morning, numerous friends asked Liu whether he had seen the space rock. They all said that the landing site should be close to Benzilan in Deqen County, but nobody knew the exact location.

All these questions slowly began to pique Liu’s interest in the meteorite. His younger brother told him that the noise had been loudest in Benzilan’s Yujie Village, and his friends there confirmed over the phone that they had witnessed “a big fireball flying across the sky.” Liu had planned to sell walnuts that day, but his friends suggested that he go looking for the space rock instead, as it would be worth much more money. Liu told Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, that he, his brother, and two friends decided to drive to Yujie Village, joining hundreds of people on the hunt for the meteorite.

It’s like chasing a rainbow. Just when you think you’ve reached it, you find that the destination is still in the distance.

Upon their arrival in Benzilan, Liu and his friends heard that the meteorite had already been found close to Reshuitang Village, near Shangri-La City. “There were even pictures of the meteorite and the crater,” Liu said. But the photos turned out to be those of a different meteorite that had landed in 2009.

“We set aside the rumors and began searching on our own,” said Liu. After asking villagers on the street for information and studying maps of the area, they headed toward Xiaruo County. When Liu and his friends were halfway there, another friend called to say that local news reports had placed the meteorite at 28.1 degrees north latitude and 99.4 degrees east longitude.

Liu pinpointed these coordinates to Xingfu Village in Nixi County. When the group arrived, villagers told them that others had already come and gone without finding anything. Even though the noise had been extremely loud in Xingfu Village, the villagers had felt no vibrations, so Liu concluded that the point of impact must be some distance away.

Reluctant to give up just yet, Liu and the team headed back toward their original destination, Xiaruo County. Along the way, Liu heard from friends that the stone was said to be a rare iron meteorite, or siderolite. His excitement grew.

After a brush with the police — the group was nearly pulled over when Liu’s younger brother blurted out that they were looking for the meteorite — the seekers grew nervous and resolved to be more cautious about revealing the details of their mission. “We were just curious,” said Liu. “If [the authorities] didn’t allow us to search for it, we would have stopped.”

A member of Liu Jiewen’s meteorite-hunting group scales a cliff in Deqen County, Yunnan province, October 2017. Courtesy of Liu Jiewen

A member of Liu Jiewen’s meteorite-hunting group scales a cliff in Deqen County, Yunnan province, October 2017. Courtesy of Liu Jiewen

That evening, the team drove to another nearby village in the dark. Over a dinner of instant noodles, their minds kept turning to the lush, mammoth mountains around them. After a whole day of searching, they had begun to doubt the existence of the meteorite.

After three days, Liu and his group hurried to Jishuitong Village, where the local government had organized its own search. One expert at the site warned that the longer it takes to recover the meteorite, the more likely it is to be contaminated by oxygen, water, fertilizers, and other elements, rendering it less valuable for scientific analysis.

But an expert from Shanghai who declined to reveal his name told Liu over the phone that his and the government’s searches may be futile. “If the reports are true, they will not find anything,” he said, explaining that the vibrations were likely just shock waves from the rock exploding in the air some 37 kilometers above Shangri-La. A meteorite hitting the ground barely emits any light; the bright flash in the sky that night meant the rock was still in the upper layers of the atmosphere at the time and could continue traveling a long distance.

The chance of finding such meteorites is very slim.

“The chance of finding such meteorites is very slim,” Xu Weibiao, director of the astrochemistry and planetary science laboratory at the Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing, told Sixth Tone. Xu confirmed that a meteorite produces no light or explosive sound on impact and would only be heard if someone were close to the landing site, “which is unlikely in the sparsely populated Yunnan mountains.”

Liu admitted that he and his fellow seekers based their search on a limited understanding of the scientific phenomenon. “We didn’t know that much about astronomy, so we just went wherever the noise was the loudest,” said Liu. “We followed any signs of activity and interviewed witnesses.”

During the hunt, Liu encountered meteorite enthusiasts, collectors, traffickers, and more. “Some of them had flown in directly on Oct. 5,” he said. “They kept quiet about their search, unlike us: We posted [on WeChat] revealing our whereabouts every step of the way.” Liu said some people who saw the posts headed north of his search location in case the meteorite had indeed traveled after the explosion — but to no avail. As of publication time, the meteorite has yet to be found.

Every day for four days, Liu covered around 150 kilometers by car and 15 kilometers on foot. He kept searching in the days that followed but finally gave up on Wednesday, saying, “I no longer want to be part of it.”

However, Liu said the experience had been magical. “It’s like chasing a rainbow,” he explained. “Just when you think you’ve reached it, you find that the destination is still in the distance.”

A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

Contributions: Zhang Yuechang and Lin Mengxuan; translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Wang Yiwei and Doris Wang.

(Header image: A view of the mountains in Deqen County, Yunnan province, Oct. 17, 2012. VCG)