Rub' al-Khali Expedition 2008
Text: Svend Buhl, Photos: Svend Buhl and Thomas Kurtz
Single meteorite finds from the Saudi Arabian part
of the Empty Quarter were published in the fifties
of the last century. They were joined by finds from the
Yemen and particularly from Oman in the late nineties.
In the deserts of the Sultanate private meteorite prospectors
came across the first meteorite aggregation areas discovered on the
Saudi Arabian Peninsula. In 2005, the United
Arab Emirates joined the meteorite countries of the Rub' al-Khali
when seven meteorite finds (all achondrites) were reported from the kingdom.
Today, sixteen percent of all meteorites found until
present stem from the Rub' al-Khali, particularly from its
southern edge. In addition to private teams, most notably the
'Omani Swiss Meteorite Search Project", a joint program of Omani
and Swiss scientific institutions, has a major
share in the discovery of new meteorites and in the study of the
complex processes that lead to dense meteorite concentration fields.
The author in front of a meteorite find. The 1,039g chondrite
fragmented through millennia of surface weathering (field name 'Rub' al-Khali 021')
In the course of five campaigns their teams have found more
than 4,400 single meteorites with a combined weight of approximately
3,500kg. These finds represent only about 300 different fall events.
Statistics on this matter reveal a surprisingly dense distribution of
individual meteoritic masses throughout the aggregation areas. On
average there is one meteorite per 0.7 square kilometer surface in
the Southern Rub' al-Khali. This corresponds to the general agreement
of approximately four meteorite falls per square kilometer every 50,000 years.
We sat by the campfire of our first bivouac on the edge of a sickle
shaped escarpment. From there we overlooked a gently descending Martian
like landscape. The ground before us was drenched in pale blue light by
the waxing moon. Over the horizon the shoulders of the Orion, Bellatrix and
Betelgeuse had made their appearance. As Thomas explained, the latter is a
red super giant six hundred times larger in diameter and ten thousand
times the luminosity of our sun. Its name was originally derived from
the Arab term 'Yad al-Jawza', meaning 'hand of the central one'. The
Arabs had previously called it Gemini Jawza ('the central one') but
later switched this name to Orion
instead. The star is already mentioned in the Book of the Constellation
of the Fixed Stars by Abd al-Rahman as Sufi from the ninth century AD.
Our Land Cruiser was parked on the slope in order to still be
able to push-start the heavy vehicle in case of a battery failure.
Such an emergency would have demanded
cold blood and proper timing from the driver, the miniscule slope
representing the only incline far and wide and ending in a deep sand field.
The Agamid lizard Trapelus mutabilis. When excited throat and flanks
of the animal change color to a bright blue. Total length 28cm
The driver would have had to release the clutch at the very last
moment and then steer the car across a distance of two hundred meters
onto the next stretch of bedrock without killing the engine in the semi fluid
deep sand. There would not have been any second
chance for the vehicle which even empty weighed over two tons and which could not have
been moved out of the sand by pure manpower.
One year old spiny-tailed Agama Uromastix thomasi. The day active animal is capable of regulating its body temperature
by changing the skin color depending on sunlight exposure. The short spiny tail is
used to close the entrance of its den. Total length 25 cm
A strong tea was steaming on the gas stove and a pan with opulent servings of scrambled
eggs, spiced up with a dose of local harissa, sizzled on the embers of the dung fire.
The 90°F of the day had been rather pleasant. Now the breeze, which had been
constantly blowing from the Northeast, had changed and started blowing from
the mountains in the Southwest like a tepid drier. Two darkling beetles of
the Trachyderma hispida species, large and
armored with delicate spines, ate their way through the plastic of our garbage bag,
demonstrating quite noisily their omnivorous determination.
We had unfolded a set of Tactical Pilotage Charts (TPC), protractor
and GPS receiver in front of us in order to establish our cruising range. Our
initial target was a promising limestone plateau, some 120 kilometers from our
current position and about 135 kilometers away
from the next frequented dirt track. Even with a consumption of 25 liters of
super fuel in challenging terrain this was easily within our coverage.
But the plan had a catch. We were traveling in a single vehicle. What would be
our chances if this broke down at the destination? Bogging down the car never
bothered us. There were always ways and means to
dig it out and get it going again, however gridlocked the situation may be. But
what in the unlikely event of an engine or transmission failure?
The now following discussion showed us quite plainly the disadvantages of
grassroots democracy in a two man team with no clear majority. While I was
ambitiously calculating our coverage and trying to convince Thomas that
even in a worst case scenario we could still reach the dirt track within a
three day forced march, my companion tended to measure the distances in question rather
defensively. I suspected that
the prospect to get uncomfortably close to the condition of the bloated camel
was not altogether insignificant to his perception of the matter.
A 700g chondrite with distinct signs of sand abrasion (field name 'Rub al-Khali 004').
Several of the meteorites found in the Empty quarter have terrestrial
lifetimes exceeding 50,000 years. In the background finder Thomas Kurtz.
We resolved to let the matter rest until the next day and decided to base it on gut feeling on the drive
tomorrow. Anyhow we intended to cover the distance to the target area searching,
i.e. in zig zag relative to our main bearing and at walking speed. This would give us time to think. Lots of time.
The first six hours of the following day went by dryly, dustyly and uneventfully.
Except for the find of a fine half quartz, half lime-filled fossil brachiopod, noon
went by without reportable events. Yet the first meteorite find was as unexpected as
unspectacular. We had just started again after an extended lunch break which we spent
lying in the shadow of our vehicle, when at 14:34 hrs, I caught the glimpse of a chip
of black rock the size of a cent coin some four meters from my curbside window. On
checking it revealed to be a heavily magnetic meteorite.
A quite noteworthy specimen with a delicate melt rim encircling the triangular base.
Barely a stone of 3.3g weight, but undoubtedly the real thing.
For more than an hour we walked the surroundings in the parching
midday heat until Thomas found a second specimen. It was hardly any
larger than the first find and with less defined fusion rind but was
most probably paired to the latter. Afterwards we had two days to figure out why out
of all things we had found these mites in the most unfavorable light
while all the other square kilometers we searched yielded no further finds.
Not a core meltdown but the dung fire of our night camp. Photo taken with 6 sec. exposure time
At least we had proven that we still knew our trade. Hence at the
verspertine campfire we agreed to uncork a bottle of 2001 Chateau
Bellevue Mondotte which I had acquired from the Bahrein airport wine
dealer's portfolio. My concern the famous St. Emilion might have
been spoiled by 84°F 'room temperature' was resolved by the first sip.
The good drop harmonized excellently with a fistful
of dates and a rising sky of stars. Not even the steel cups which we were
using for want of adequate cut crystal could impair the pleasure.
Judged by the noises evaporating from our garbage bag also the two darkling
beetles had accompanied us to the new camp site. In their new habitat
they now enjoyed a time of plenty.
Previous to our departure from Germany Thomas had thoroughly recorded the orbital
data and overflight times of the International Space Station ISS. For tonight a visible
orbit was announced at 19:13 hrs local time. The station was supposed to emerge
at an azimuth of 57° North by Northeast. In fact seven minutes after the forecasted
arrival time a fast moving pale blue light appeared ten degrees above the horizon.
It grew in luminosity quickly as it rose and continued along a
broad arch across the Eastern sky. Thomas's telescope dubbed a 'Russian barrel" among adepts
was a converted telephoto with a mirror diameter of 100mm and a focal with of 1,000mm.
It was already set up and aimed.
What an excitement when we discovered that the shuttle Atlantis was still docked
to the station. Right, the landing of the Mission 'STS 122' was announced not
until February 20. This also explained the station's delayed appearance.
According to common routine the crew had
fired its spare fuel to lift the orbit of the station a couple of kilometers.
Thus extending the orbit which lead to a longer flight path.
We followed the trajectory with the scope along its
complete way, enjoyed the sight and toasted to the daredevil
men who rounded our planet in their flying can. At this night we
perceived the ISS as the messenger of a future which would beyond
doubt lead to a time of travel in which the
journey to the worlds whose fragments we searched for in the sands of
the Rub' al-Khali would be no more an exception.
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