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The mystery of the meteorite

In the early afternoon of July 7, 2022, a loud band echoed throughout the region. There was speculation that there had been some kind of explosion somewhere nearby, and many in town looked out towards the horizon, scanning for a plume of smoke. They weren’t to find any.

The mystery was put to rest when a dash-cam from a plumber showed a streak in the sky resembling a fireball, hurtling towards the ground. The loud bang heard in Wairarapa had been a meteorite. It was a leading news item for a while, and it led to a rock hunt to try and find where it had landed. After several days of searching, it was deduced that the space rock had landed somewhere off the coast and wasn’t likely to be recovered.

During the interest in the 2022 meteorite, a list was produced showing the meteorites that had been found in New Zealand, which included two that had been witnessed. In all, nine space rocks had been recovered in the country over the last 150 years. And the interesting thing, the first rock on the list was found in Wairarapa.

It was in 1863 that the meteorite was discovered, and according to an article in the Mineralogical Magazine from June 1962, it was said to have been found “on or near the surface of, a plain underlain by coarse gravel, in front of the house of a Mr Donald, at Manaia, near the left bank of the Waingawa River”.

It was of a decent size for a meteorite, 22 centimetres long, 15cm wide and 17cm thick and weighed four kilograms. It was recognised as being an important find, and it made its way into the Colonial Museum in Wellington.

Then things get a bit more complicated. At some stage, the meteorite passed to a Mr Mantell. A publication from 1910 said the meteorite was only deposited in the museum but actually belonged to Mr Mantell. The records from the Colonial Museum go even further to state that there were no meteorites deposited at the museum at that time, nor anything deposited by anyone by the name of Mantell.

The rock stayed with the family until 1928 when Mantell’s widow made a donation to the Auckland War Memorial Museum which their register describes as “two pieces of meteorites that have fallen in New Zealand”. A study of these two specimens would have proven whether they were the Wairarapa meteorite based on the original descriptions.

A simple enough task, but it was not to be. The museum mislaid the two space rocks, and it wasn’t until 1955 that they were found again. A study was then able to be made comparing the Auckland rock to a piece in the Dominion Museum [Te Papa’s predecessor]. The piece in Wellington was labelled “Wairarapa Meteorite”, and a study made by Professor P Marshall showed that the Wairarapa Meteorite and the newly rediscovered rock in the Auckland Museum were the same.

A detailed analysis was made of the specimen, and they were broken down into their component parts, but in a language only geologists would appreciate: “The phases present are kamacite, taenite, plessite, troilite, magnetite, chromite, olivine Fa16, bronzite Fs15, possibly enstatite, plagioclase An25 and maskelynite An9”.

The two known pieces are in the two biggest museums in the country, but there is no sample currently with Aratoi. Smaller pieces have reportedly been found near the original crash site and have been collected or sold. Should a new piece be found by a rockhound, a place could certainly be found at our local museum where this ancient extraterrestrial rock star could be appreciated by thousands of well-behaved fans.

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