The Legend of the Nakhla Dog

A legend has been perpetuated in the meteorite community since the Nakhla meteorite fall regarding the death of a dog that was hit by one of the falling stones, as interpreted from the following statement about the event first reported in the Arabic Newspaper “El Ahali”: “One of them [fragments] fell on a dog at Denshal, leaving it like ashes in the moment.” A current English interpretation of this statement can be made considering the literary style at the time of the fall in the early 20th century. A commonly used expression of that period, “of little moment”, had the meaning of something inconsequential, while the similar expression “like ashes in the moment” can likewise mean something without consequence, unimportant. Therefore, the writer’s statement can be interpreted to mean that a meteorite fragment fell on (“on” meaning in the vicinity of, as with a cannonball bombardment on a fort) a dog, which then [walking away indifferently] left it (“it” meaning the fallen stone, not the dog) without consequence, considering it to be of no importance. The image of a carefree dog oblivious to the imminent danger of falling rocks would have been notable. On a further note, the account given can be challenged based on several other salient points. The fall took place June 28, not on the 29th as the report stated. Moreover, the reported village of Denshal is actually about 33 km southeast of the 5 km-long meteorite strewn field in El Nakhla el Baharia, an inordinately long distance away for a meteorite of minimal pre-atmospheric size to have fallen. Denshal probably experienced sonic booms, but no other witnesses were reported to have observed a meteor or any meteorites from the Denshal area. Then, too, the main evidence, a dead dog, was never produced. Lacking any compelling evidence to the contrary, it might be presumed that this story of a meteorite-killed dog is apocryphal, and can itself be laid to rest.

Deciphering Denshal Dog Data

standby for nakhla photo Although my skeptical nature leads me to scrutinize the impact dog event, I remain open-minded to new evidence supporting either side. Despite the absence of eyewitnesses and newspaper articles, I am of the mind that the probability of such a dog impact in Denshal can be further assessed through the scientific method, using the data and theoretical applications currently available.

While looking through the literature for any helpful data, I found a non-peer-reviewed paper published by Eugster et al. in LPSC 33 (2002), in which they describe research on “The Pre-Atmospheric Size Of Martian Meteorites”. The upper limit of the radii of martian ejecta translates to masses of 150–270 kg–too high to be a limiting factor when considering a Nakhla strewn field that may extend all the way to Denshal. However, in a diagram that compares the minimum pre-atmospheric weights of several Martian meteorites–including Nakhla, Zagami, Shergotty, QUE 94201, Chassigny, Los Angeles, and SaU 005–it is Nakhla that has the lowest, i.e., the smallest size. Therefore, one might reasonably expect Nakhla to also be at the low end of the range of weights of all martian meteorite falls, especially if a pattern is evident. The falls include the following four meteorites, listed in order from the smallest to the largest minimum calculated pre-atmospheric size, with the actual fall weights given in parentheses: Nakhla (10 kg), Zagami (18 kg), Shergotty (5 kg), and Chassigny (4 kg).

For those Martian meteorites that are finds, the two with the largest minimum pre-atmospheric masses, again with the actual fall weights given in parentheses, are SaU 005 (1.3 kg, but 10.6 kg with paired masses included) and then Los Angeles (0.7 kg), either of which may or may not be representive of their cumulative fall weights. In addition, having a minimum pre-atmospheric size similar to that of Chassigny, the Antarctic QUE 94201 (0.012 kg) likely does not represent its total fall weight. Although not included in this study, two other martians with large recovered weights can be mentioned for comparison–EET 79001 (7.9 kg) and the DaG 476 grouping (6.3 kg).

While I don’t observe a pattern, I would not expect the Nakhla fall to be much bigger than these. To my speculation, a greatly extended strewn field for Nakhla, with the usual pattern of larger masses falling further down range (into Denshal and the dog), would significantly increase the fall weight of Nakhla–a weight that presently seems to fit among the others quite comfortably, especially considering it was ascribed the lowest minimum pre-atmospheric weight.

While this is admittedly only a rudimentary stab at resolving the issue, I think there are other data out there, which taken together, could establish a preponderance of evidence and tip the scale one way or the other. For instance, in The Shergotty Consortium, published in Geochimica vol. 50, 1986, there are peer-reviewed papers concerning the pre-atmospheric and final fall sizes of certain shergottites. Following a determination of CRE ages from known profiles, cosmic ray track densities of specific samples were used to calculate the sample’s shielding depth and ablation characteristics on the pre-atmospheric meteoroid. This information was then used to calculate the size of the pre-atmospheric mass. From this calculated meteoroid size, the production rate of cosmogenic nuclides at different depths was used to better constrain the CRE age. For Shergotty, a pre-atmospheric size of ~12 cm was calculated. This is equal to a mass of 26 kg, of which only 5 kg was recovered, inferring an ablation rate of 80%. Ablation rates of 50–80% were determined for other shergottites.

This type of study could be done for Nakhla. Each piece of Nakhla studied would have cosmic ray track densities that were consistent with a specific shielding geometry, which should be consistent with the pre-atmospheric size as calculated from production rates of cosmogenic and radiogenic nuclides. An examination of a representative sampling of Nakhla fragments should be able to constrain its size and ablation characteristics, and perhaps determine if any anomalies in its fall weight are present. If not, it would be evidence tipping the scale in favor of a limited strewn field, thus ruling out an impact on a dog 33 km downrange in Denshal.

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