EXCLUSIVE: Adler teens find probable meteorite fragment, scientist says

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A group of Chicago teens with the Adler Planetarium's Aquarius Project may be on the verge of making history, having discovered a probable meteorite fragment, according to NASA scientist Dr. Marc Fries.

"We need a little more detail to be able to tell for certain but it's a very good candidate for a meteorite fall," said Fries of the object he's placed under a scanning electron microscope.

That microscope image, first shared exclusively with ABC7, provides a higher resolution of detail compared to other methods, according to Fries, who added that the microscope also helps reveal the item's composition.

"This particular little piece that they found has nickel in it. And nickel in relative abundance. And that is one of the signatures of a possible, what we call an Astro material, something from space," explained the NASA cosmic curator.

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But final confirmation remains elusive, because like so much of our lives, lab work is being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Until we have analyzed the mineral chemistry of those, we cannot say what it is," added Dr. Philipp Heck, an associate curator at the Field Museum who is also reviewing samples collected by the Aquarius Project team.

This project dates back more than three years to a massive meteor's streaking across the midwestern sky in February 2017. Scientists believe the fireball splintered over Lake Michigan, sinking in the waters roughly east of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

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That prompted a Museum Campus collaboration, bringing together the Adler, Field and Shedd Aquarium braintrust to guide teen explorers as they designed their very own meteorite-hunting sled, named Starfall.

"Something like this has never happened before, so they're writing the book on this," explained Chris Bresky, who runs the Adler's teen programs and continues to be instrumental to the Aquarius Project's momentum.

Starting in 2018, the group began hunting more than 10 miles off the Manitowoc coast. I joined them on an August 2018 voyage as they sent Starfall diving over 200 feet to scoure the lakebed with powerful magnets; the sled was being towed by the research vessel Neeskay.

The boat was full of young researchers, including Starfall co-designer Roman Jones, now an 18-year-old college freshman with the Aquarius Project to thank for career inspiration.

"You can really just do kind of whatever you want as long as you have a group of people to help you and you are excited about the work that you're doing," Jones said, thrilled to learn the group's work may have succeeded.

"It's their energy and wisdom that's led it this far," said Bresky of the budding explorers, adding, "never underestimate the power of a teenager."

That message will resonate even more should the probable meteorite piece be verified. According to Fries, enough cameras captured images of the fireball to be able to retrace its steps and determine its original orbit--a rare opportunity.

"You start to put together the kind of broader distribution of meteorite types in the solar system today," Fries said.

The Aquarius Project team will share more during a live-stream press conference at 12 p.m. on Thursday.
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