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Balls of fire: A look at Alberta’s meteor events in 2020

Click to play video 'U of A scientists hunting for meteorite that likely fell near Camrose' U of A scientists hunting for meteorite that likely fell near Camrose
WATCH ABOVE: There were dozens of meteor events reported across Alberta this past year. Phil Darlington speaks to the experts about the science behind the meteorite activity in the province – Dec 31, 2020

It’s a bird, it’s a plane it… a carbonaceous chondrite.

Globally, there have been over 25,000 reports of meteor events this year, according the American Meteor Society (AMS). Those reports account for roughly 8,000 events.

That’s quiet, compared to last year which recorded 29,401 reports globally.

A map of possible meteor and meteorite sightings over and near Alberta in 2020 provided by the American Meteor Society.

Alberta’s contribution to that total is made up of roughly 170 reports from more than 60 meteor events. A large number are clustered over the Rockies; others were spotted by Albertans, but actually occurred in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Idaho and Montana.

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Read more: Apparent meteor seen streaking across the night sky in Calgary, Banff

For a lump of “space rock” to be a meteorite it has to survive the trip through the atmosphere. While it is an impressive feat of engineering to get astronauts through Earth’s atmosphere, a piece of rock has no manmade shielding.

The AMS says a meteor enters our atmosphere at speeds between 25,000-160,000 miles per hour. That’s up to 257,495 kilometres per hour.

Yeah, they’re fast.

At those speeds, the atmosphere gets ionized and excited in a “tail” behind the meteor which appears as a flash of light.

At the University of Calgary, PhD Candidate in Planetary Science and Teaching Assistant Fabio Ciceri has been watching the skies and says there are a few meteors over Alberta this year which may have yielded meteorites.

One of the most exciting is the one which is presumed to have fallen in the Rockies near the border on July 24.

“We think that was seen mostly in Alberta, but it fell in B.C. in Fairmont Hot Springs,” says Ciceri.

Of course, finding a specific rock anywhere in the mountains will be tough, and if we look at a map of meteor sightings from AMS it shows the possible meteorite landing site from the event on July 24 just north of Lower Kananaskis Lake — the Alberta side of the border.

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Regardless, Ciceri says because of the light colour it produced as it fell, it very well could be a more rare type of meteorite.

Read more: How to spot a space rock: University of Alberta video helps differentiate earth rocks from meteorites

Meteorites are classified by their composition. Director of the Planetarium and Space Sciences from the TELUS World of Science Frank Florian says there are a few types: iron meteorites, pallasites and the category that includes the one from July 24: chondrites.

“They are quite dark in appearance, actually all of them are, and that’s due to the burning up as the rock passes through the Earth’s atmosphere” says Florian.

“A chondrite is really a stony meteorite made out of a lot of silicates.”

Meteorite from Telus World of Science display. Courtesy, TELUS World of Science

The one which fell on July 24 near the border between British Columbia and Alberta is a carbonaceous chondrite, and Ciceri says this type is especially desirable because “some of them represent the most primitive material in the solar system,” which means they can be four and a half billion years old.

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“Some of them contain organic matter, so they contain water,” which he says is important for the origin of life and as such, there are a lot of studies going on around that type of meteorite.