CLARIN

The Sad Story Of Argentina's Disappearing Space Rocks

Campo del Cielo, in the far north, has an usual concentration of meteorites. But little by little they're being pilfered, and often smuggled out of the country.

Fragment of meteorite from Campo del Cielo
Fragment of meteorite from Campo del Cielo
Gonzalo Herman

BUENOS AIRES — A long time ago, in an area far far from Argentina's big cities, a shower of meteorites rained down from the sky, littering a 15 by 70-sq-km patch of land with an untold number of space rocks.

The meteorites, spread out in the provinces of Chaco and Santiago del Estero, are the remnants of an 840,000-kilogram asteroid that exploded in our atmosphere. And to this day — some 4,000 years later — the Campo del Cielo (Sky Field), as it's known, remains one of the strangest places on earth, torrid and utterly barren.

But because of the unusual prevalence there of aerolites (meteorite rocks), this otherwise unremarkable place has become a magnet in recent decades for vandals and traffickers prospecting for the extraterrestrial stones like they were gold, and then selling them on the black market for gold-like prices.

Staff at the Scientific Educational Park in Gancedo, in the province of Chaco, say that gangs have entered the park, unearthed the rocks and loaded them onto trucks to take away. And they can take all the time they way, given how big the area is, and who infrequently scientists visit (just once a month).

They accuse people living near the park or on its edges of encouraging or conniving in these thefts. "They think they'll get rich selling meteorites," says Carlos Cerrutti, a geologist working at the Scientific Park.

This otherwise unremarkable place has become a magnet in recent decades for vandals and traffickers.

Specialists do not know where the rocks are unearthed. "Some are sitting outside on the surface. Others are buried," Cerrutti explains. "They may be using metal detectors to take them out of the ground." Either way, most thieving operations are successful, he says. The geologist is also concerned that the thieves are becoming more violent.

There have also been robberies in the Park's museum, most recently in May. The watchman on duty later said the thieves, armed with knives, arrived at night, tied him up, and finally left with two pieces weighing 25 kilograms and a third weighing 18 kilograms.

One of the most daring, though unsuccessful thefts was in 1990, when thieves sought then to take the 37.4-tonne "El Chaco," the biggest aerolite to have fallen in Argentina and considered the second biggest in the world. Another meteorite was stolen that year from a school collection of 300 rocks picked up by pupils around Gancedo.

Nicolás Goldberg, an artist who has used meteorites in his work and helped index hundreds of pieces for the Park museum, recalls that approximately 400 pieces were seized when they were about to be smuggled through Uruguay or Paraguay. But most of rocks simply disappear. The Astronomy Association of Chaco believes more than six tons of meteorite fragments have been stolen in the provinces of Santiago del Estero and Chaco in recent years.

Campo del Cielo "El Chaco" meteorite — Photo: Carlos Zito

Alejandro López, an astronomer and researcher at CONICET, Argentina's state research agency, says there's also been a "globalization of the meteorites black market." The rocks have "very high" levels of nickel content, which gives them value, he explains. Collectors like to get them for display purposes. Others use the meteorite fragments to make jewelry. López also notes that part of the Campo del Cielo is in private hands, making the meteorite removal even harder to control.

He says that collectors pay locals to help them access the rocks. And according to Mario Vesconi, president of the Chaco Astronomy Association, it's having a corrupting effect on people, "destroying the innocence of country folk" who think the rocks will make them rich.

The meteorites found in Campo del Cielo are siderites, or metallic, and they're rare. Only 5% of the world's meteorites have such properties. "When people realized these little "bits of iron" could be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, within a few years nobody had a single bit of meteorite left on their ranch or field," Vesconi explains.

Websites marketing meteorites are abundant. One of the best known is run by an Alaskan geologist, Eric Twelker, who sells fragments from around the world, including many from Chaco. His site shows that a piece weighing a kilogram or more can fetch around $1,000, and also instructs visitors on how to reach Campo del Cielo.

They think they'll get rich selling meteorites.

While the two provinces and the Argentine state have passed laws declaring meteorites found or to be found in Argentina to be part of the nation's cultural property, thefts continue. "The laws haven't proven to be particularly effective, and once these objects cross our borders, they end up in completely legal sales circuits in other countries," Vesconi laments.

The geologist Cerrutti says that every theft represents the loss of valuable scientific information. "We won't be able to interpret how the meteorite shower happened 4,000 years ago if they empty the park," he says. "All the scientific data will be gone."

The point to bear in mind is that these rocks come from outer space and were circulating around the sun for some 4.5 billion years. Before landing on the earth, they traveled thousands of trillions of kilometers. As such, they offer valuable clues about the origin and evolution of the solar system. "This is a unique, finite and highly endangered heritage," says Vesconi of the 400 tons of aerolites buried in Campo del Cielo.

In the case of the shower on Campo del Cielo, says Vesconi, "the study being undertaken on its field of craters has allowed us to recover the formative masses, determine crash speeds, angles of incidence and estimate the energy at stake at the moment of impact of each celestial body."

"Every site where a meteorite has hit our planet is a puzzle that must be pieced together by specialists of various areas to be fully understood," he adds. "That's why they must be preserved and protected from theft and destruction."

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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