RECIFE, Brazil – Fragments of space rock rained down one sunny morning last month in Santa Filomena, an impoverished small town in Brazil’s rugged and semi-arid northeastern Sertao region.
Not long after that Aug. 19 cosmic event, dozens of meteorite hunters descended upon the remote farming community in search of valuable chunks that can be worth several thousands of dollars apiece.
The first visitors started scouring the streets and fields of Santa Filomena after just three days and some sought to buy the fragments, offering sums of money that were beyond the wildest dreams of the town’s mostly young residents.
Since then, that community of 14,000 inhabitants in the interior of Pernambuco state has been gripped by meteorite fever, and its only inn has been converted into a shop selling galactic rocks.
“It was a gift from heaven for a community with little earning power, with Pernambuco’s fifth-lowest per-capita income. But it’s also a call and an opportunity to transform the region through astronomic tourism,” Diego Alencar, a member of the Recife Astronomical Society, told EFE.
Alencar, also a photographer specializing in these types of phenomena, said the first researchers to arrive did the work of “cataloging, documenting and weighing the fragments” before the town’s inhabitants sold them to foreign dealers.
“The phenomenon attracted two Americans, a Uruguayan and a Puerto Rican who are already known in the trade for these types of rocks and who re-sell them to universities, museums or collectors, but we believe some of the fragments should stay in Brazil and in the city to create a museum,” he said.
The foreign dealers have offered up to 100,000 reais (around $18,500) for some of the largest fragments, including a 38-kilogram (84-pound) chunk that a farmer discovered and which is being safeguarded at the town’s lone police station until he is able to sell it.
“In a region with a dry climate and almost no rainfall year-round, life is tough. That’s why the social aspect is just as important as the scientific part, and there’s no reason we can’t fuse them,” said Alencar, who noted that, unlike Brazil, Argentina has a law governing these types of cases.
Jose Carlos de Medeiros, a physicist, founder of the Astro Agreste astronomy group and first researcher on the scene in Santa Filomena, also is calling for some of the fragments to remain in the town and others to be taken to the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
No institution, however, has yet made an official announcement to that effect.
“It’s a community that already suffers from intense sun and drought. We don’t want it to just be known in history for this chapter. We can use what happened to create a “Meteorite Tour” and bring children and adolescents interested in these subjects from throughout the region and the country,” De Medeiros told EFE.
The mayor’s office, meanwhile, already has said it wants the rocks to stay in Santa Filomena, though also acknowledging it lacks the funds to buy them or keep local inhabitants from selling them.
“People are ecstatic over this rock business. I know I can’t tell them, ‘don’t sell,’ when I can’t offer them anything better,” Mayor Cleomatson Vasconcelos told the G1 news portal.
The fragments destroyed the roofs of some houses, of the only bar and of the main church in that town located 719 kilometers (445 miles) from Recife, the state capital. Some of the space rocks landed just centimeters from people who were walking on the street that Aug. 19.
In remarks to EFE, Marcelo Zurita, a researcher with the Brazilian Meteor Observation Network (Bramon), described the space debris as “a meteorite from a space rock (that weighed) between two and five tons, of which 10 to 12 percent survived” the fiery passage through Earth’s atmosphere and hit the ground.
Bramon says that based on footage from the Clima Ao Vivo climate platform’s system of cameras in different parts of the region, the fragments may be dispersed across an area measuring 30 km in length and four km in width.
The meteoroid was traveling at a velocity of 18 km per second (65,000 km per hour) when it entered Earth’s atmosphere. It later slowed to 12.9 km per second, while the meteorite that survived ended up striking the surface of the Earth at a speed of 300 km per hour, the researcher said.