NASA joins in meteor search

Object may help agency learn more about the solar system

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2000

ANCHORAGE - NASA has joined the search for remnants of last week's meteor explosion over the Yukon Territory, saying the space object may help the agency learn more about our solar system.

The meteor, which exploded Tuesday over the village of Carcross, was the largest of its kind over dry land in 10 years.

The powerful explosion was seen and felt by people in Canada and Alaska hundreds of miles from Carcross, according to astronomers and Canadian news reports.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent a research plane to the Yukon on Friday to collect atmospheric samples from the explosion, which NASA said packed the force of two to three kilotons of TNT.

``They're sampling the stratosphere for particles,'' said Dr. Michael Zolensky, a cosmic mineralogist at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas. ``We'll be looking to see if we can find anything that is extraterrestrial.''

Extraterrestrial, that is, in the broadest sense of the word.

``It means anything that doesn't come from the Earth,'' Zolensky said.

If scientists can figure out the meteor's source and composition, it will help them learn more about the origins of the solar system, Zolensky said.

The NASA plane, dispatched Friday from California, made two large circles over Carcross, 50 miles south of Whitehorse, at an altitude of 65,000 feet. It gathered samples of the meteor's debris cloud and vapor trail, said Alan Brown, a NASA spokesman in Edwards, Calif.

Because the explosion took place several days ago, NASA had to estimate where the cloud went based on wind and weather information, Zolensky said.

There's no indication any sizable debris was scattered in the mountains between Carcross and Skagway, where the meteor probably disintegrated. But photographs taken from the plane should reveal whether any large areas of snow melted from the meteor's heat or whether there's any noticeable crater.

If any debris is detected on the ground, NASA will send a team to gather it.

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