Podcast

Episode 6: The Aquarius Project

A fireball from outer space crashed into one of Earth’s biggest lakes. Scientists didn’t know how to find it. So they called in just the right people for the job—an actor and a bunch of teenagers.

Photograph by Babak Tafreshi / National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Babak Tafreshi / National Geographic Creative
Podcast

Episode 6: The Aquarius Project

A fireball from outer space crashed into one of Earth’s biggest lakes. Scientists didn’t know how to find it. So they called in just the right people for the job—an actor and a bunch of teenagers.

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A fireball from outer space crashed into one of Earth’s biggest lakes. Scientists didn’t know how to find it. So they called in just the right people for the job—an actor and a bunch of teenagers.

TRANSCRIPT

PETER GWIN (HOST): It all started with a question: What if? Last summer, Jack Morgan got on a boat and set sail out onto Lake Michigan. He was looking for something at the very bottom.

JACK MORGAN (AQUARIUS PROJECT TEAM MEMBER): It’s about twelve miles offshore from Wisconsin, and it's roughly the distance between the cities of Sheboygan and Manitowoc. So if you know the area, you'll know that's quite a distance. It's like an hour's drive on the highway.

GWIN: That's how far the distance is that you're searching.

MORGAN: Yeah, from the north end to the south end and several miles across.

GWIN: Wow, okay. So a big area.

MORGAN: Yeah. It's a massive area.

GWIN: Jack was part of a team hunting for a meteorite. They knew it had landed in the lake. But where exactly? And what if they found it? Because if they did find it, how were they going to bring it up?

MORGAN: It is quite far down. It's about 200-to-300 feet underwater, so divers are out of the question there, and it also broke up into some very small pieces when it hit the atmosphere, so, we're really looking for like, tiny pebble sized chunks of meteorite.

GWIN: And these tiny pebble-sized chunks? They’re magnetic. So Jack and the rest of the team wondered… what if? What if they built a sled covered in magnets, outfitted with all kinds of cameras and sensors? So they did.

MORGAN: So we we take our we take our sled we send it down to the bottom of the lake. We drag it along the bottom. We pull it up, we sift through whatever it's dragged up and if we spot anything interesting, we put it in a special bin and mark it for further study. And then we send the sled back down and send it for another run through the lake.

GWIN: You're looking for a needle in a haystack, right?

MORGAN: Yeah, well, we're not so much looking for a needle in a haystack, as a piece of hay that's magnetic in a haystack.

GWIN: That’s even harder. When the team dreamt up this project, no one had ever tried this before — scouring a deep body of water for remnants of a meteorite. They were on the cutting edge of science, explorers crossing a new frontier. So what made Jack and the rest of the team think they could do it? They were just a bunch of teenagers.

[music]

I’m Peter Gwin and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week: the rock from out of this world that landed in Chicago’s backyard and the ragtag team that won’t give up until they find it. We’ll have more after the break.

[break]

 

GWIN: One thing that we always do is we ask our guests to introduce yourself. Just your name and you know who you are.

SHANE LARSON (ASTRONOMER): So how much you want? You want like my full professional title and all that sort of stuff?

GWIN: Like, if you were at a cocktail party and you were introducing yourself to you know, regular people like me, how would you introduce yourself?

LARSON: Hi, I'm Shane. I'm the biggest nerd you know. [laughs]

GWIN: This is Shane Larson. And Shane loves space. It’s both his day job — as an astrophysics professor at Northwestern — and his hobby as an amateur astronomer. Which means that on one cold winter night in 2017, Shane was the perfect person to witness

what was about to happen next.

LARSON: So it was February, right? So February is the middle of our winter quarter. And I'm a professor, right? So I have plenty of work to do all the time. And so I was sitting there. I was the only one up. You know, my cats are sitting on their cat tower right next to me. And I was grading. And right at the right moment, I happened to look up. And there was this enormous fireball, as we call it, which is a super bright meteor streaming across the sky. I could see it right out my window and I freaked out.

GWIN: Freaked. Out. Actually, Shane’s exact words were:

LARSON:Holy frap! Just saw a huge fireball out my window!” I mean, this looked like, you know, a comet from a Hollywood movie coming through the sky. I mean, it was so bright.

GWIN: In 35 years of stargazing, Shane had never seen anything like it. And then he thought, that fireball is headed straight for Lake Michigan. How often does something fall from space right into your own backyard?

LARSON: So I sent this email to my colleagues that said I was up and I saw this. “Did anyone else see it?” And so there was a little bit of e-mail chatter about this. And I said just kind of off the cuff. Wouldn't it be cool if we could go down and see that's where that meteor went?

GWIN: But most of the other scientists getting these emails? They weren’t on board. They said the lake was too deep. Finding the meteorite was too hard. And where would they get the money for an expedition like that anyway? But those emails back and forth did manage to get one person’s attention: a guy named Chris Bresky who works at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

CHRIS BRESKY (PROJECT LEADER): And so I emailed Dr. Shane Larson and said, is there any chance that we could just talk? I don't know what I'm doing, but this seems like a great story and this is in our backyard.

GWIN: In a planetarium full of PhDs, Chris had a master’s degree in acting. But even if he wasn’t a scientist, Chris was enamored with the idea that a space rock was right there, just waiting to be found.

BRESKY: If you imagine you get your hands out, spread wide, being all-time in the universe, from the Big Bang to now. If you just take a nail file and file just the edge of your fingernail on one side of that wingspan. That is how long human beings have been on the earth. These rocks are a time capsule of that entire span up to that point. There is no rock on earth that old. These rocks are older than the earth and some of them older than our solar system. And so you gather a piece of that, you gather a puzzle piece into the makeup of our universe.

GWIN: Puzzle pieces of the universe can be hard to come by. So when the professional scientists at Adler Planetarium said they couldn’t just drop everything to look for a space rock, Chris thought, I know who can. Chris leads the planetarium’s teen programming. And he told the scientists, maybe my students can help.

BRESKY: I kept on asking them all, “how do you think students could be involved?” And they said, well, I mean, in our fields are these scientists that we work with and our bandwidth as well is analyzing content once we have it, but not usually the process by which to get that content.

GWIN: In other words, we don’t know the best way to find the meteorite, but maybe a bunch of high schoolers can figure it out.

BRESKY: The students were a perfect fit, being the project engineers to dream up the ideas to test and retest and to go on this hunt.

GWIN: So a few months after that fireball tore through the sky, the team launched a search to find it. And its first order of business? Come up with a cool name. Shane Larson nailed it.

LARSON: So we called this “Aquarius.” Because Aquarius is a constellation. So it's in the sky. Aquarius happens to also mean “water” and/or be associated with water. And this meteorite went in the lake. So it was kind of just a great name.

GWIN: Now it was time for the young engineers to tackle the big question: how do you retrieve a space rock from a massive lake?

MORGAN: No one really knows what we're doing here, including us.

GWIN: In the summer of 2017, Jack Morgan was a rising sophomore in high school. He’d spent the summer at the planetarium as an intern.

MORGAN: On the last day of that internship, Chris walks in was like, “Hey, we're testing our magnetic meteorite sled at the beach. Does anyone want to come and see?” I was like... what?!

GWIN: Parents take note: that’s one way to get a teenager’s attention. From then on, Jack was hooked. Chris showed him the sled. A scientist at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago had built a kind of rough draft, a concept for the teens to start with. And that first version? Well, let’s just say everybody was making the best of it.

BRESKY: So, limitations can be freeing at times. And when higher-ups informed us that we didn't have a budget for this initially we had to get resourceful. And luckily I said, “I have a background in improvisation and these students are even better at it.” So, this sled that we deployed to the bottom of Lake Michigan is 90% trash [laughs]. Ninety-percent recycled material.

GWIN: The teens had scrapped it together with PVC, some bungee cords, a couple of steel rods, and the cherry on top: old cutting boards from the aquarium where little fish had been chopped into food for bigger fish.

BRESKY: So, it's kind of morbid. You could think of like fish being cut on these cutting boards and now it's swimming by fish on the bottom of Lake Michigan. Hopefully they won't take it personally.

GWIN: At first they tried using regular bar magnets on the sled: the kind you might’ve used in science class. But they weren’t strong enough. So, Jack says, the team upgraded.

MORGAN: Our magnets are made from the element neodymium. They’re chunks of metal that are incredibly strong magnets. And as we as we started messing around with the first few of them, we gave them nicknames like “Finger Snapper” and “Bone Crusher” because of how powerful they are.

GWIN: The team also fashioned the sled with an array of gadgets.

 

MORGAN: When I first started on the project I was working with — learning how to how to code sensors that we would send down to the bottom of the lake. Because we don't know what the what the environment is like down there and we, we wanted to know the things like the temperature and the pressure and the oxygen concentration in the water and how much light they're receiving, things like that.

GWIN: This sounds like really sophisticated science that you're doing here. This isn't just like a normal high school project. So how did you how did you learn all this stuff?

MORGAN: Ah, well we really kind of learn it as we go because this is, this is really uncharted territory when it comes to when it comes to, when it comes to this research. So we're, you know, even as, even as high schoolers we know just about as much about it as any of the researchers we're working with do.

GWIN: In other words, when it comes to recovering a meteorite underwater, these high schoolers are pretty much the experts. But sometimes they do get stumped, so they ask other scientists to help them figure out how to move forward. Shane Larson says the teenagers’ approach is what separates this project from baking soda volcanoes at the science fair.

 

LARSON: We kind of all have this picture of scientists that derives from, you know, the way it's portrayed in movies or the way we think about Einstein of people sitting behind a desk, you know, all by themselves, writing with a fountain pen on a pad of paper. But that's not the way science works, right? The way science works is you walking three doors down the hall to your neighbor’s friend who works on science that’s slightly different than yours and saying, have you ever had to worry about this? What did you do? Oh, that's a good idea. I'm going to go try that. And then you go work on your problem again. That's all the students are doing, right? They just haven't been doing this as long as I have.

GWIN: The team spent a year developing their sled. A year of testing, tweaking, and improving. And then, in the summer of 2018, they were ready to launch. They borrowed a research boat from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and set sail ten miles offshore. The plan was to drag the sled along the bottom of Lake Michigan to see if they could recover a meteorite. But they really had no idea what to expect because most of the bottom of Lake Michigan is unexplored. That’s what lake experts told Chris Bresky.

BRESKY: We couldn't get any answers, any clear answers, because they told us that less than one percent of the Great Lakes had been mapped in detail. And so yet again we realize we're on the edge of this new frontier.

GWIN: But those trips to new frontiers? They rarely go as planned.

BRESKY: And we bring the sled, this magnet-rich sled onto the bow of the boat — or onto the stern of the boat, I guess, where the crane is out back — and lower it to the deck and immediately, thunk! It sticks to the deck. The ship is iron and our magnets work and it's not going anywhere. So we learn quickly how to work with our research vessel and how our sled is operating from the get-go. There's just, like, many failures along the way, some that make you laugh and others that make you want to scream.

GWIN: The team managed to pry the sled off the deck. And then finally it was time to drop it over the side of the boat into the water, 200 feet down to the bottom.

BRESKY: We stick a drop camera, like a live feed camera to the nose of the sled. And one student said I've never watched, nothing on TV with so much excitement.

GWIN: Oh wow.

BRESKY: They just couldn't stop staring at it. And thunk, we hit the bottom. There's a big cloud of dust. And as it clears, we don't see sand. Instead we see these like sort of speckled dark-light, dark-light for as far as the image can show us. And the fish scientists on board seemed surprised. And we were immediately wondering, what's — what's up?

GWIN: Turns out that since nobody had actually seen the lakebed here, the scientists didn’t know an invasive species had taken over.

BRESKY: And they said we've never seen quagga mussels, this invasive species of mussels, in such a high density population this deep before. We had no idea there was this issue going on.

GWIN: Quagga Mussels! A scientific discovery! Hooray! But not the one the Aquarius Project wanted. It actually made their job harder. Because some of the sediment at the bottom of the lake was magnetic. And apparently it was getting inside the mussels.

MORGAN: The quagga mussels are filter feeders which means they suck in the particulate that's in the water around them. And that includes the, sort of the magnetite sediment that is being dumped into the lake. And as a result the quagga mussels actually become magnetized and they stick to our magnets.

GWIN: Oh man, so you drag this thing up and you and your super-magnets are all covered up in quagga mussels.

MORGAN: Yes.

GWIN: What did that look like?

MORGAN: Imagine if something had been left underwater for a couple of decades and was like covered in barnacles or something. It was really quite the sight.

GWIN: They got to work cleaning off the mussels and finding bits of rock that had stuck to the magnets. And then they dropped the sled back into the water and did it all over again.

BRESKY: And the students are like descending upon the sled as it, you know, comes onto the boat full of muck. And they're they're pulling — they're getting their hands dirty, they're pulling off all these objects. And they're wondering if every object that they pull off is from space. It doesn't look like a rock from Earth. What is this? It's stuck to the magnet.

[music]

GWIN: After more than a year of hard work, maybe it was all about to pay off. All the long hours, all the setbacks, all the MacGyver-ing. Maybe this time they had actually done it. Maybe they had finally found a piece of the meteorite.

JENNIKA GREER (COSMOCHEMIST): They actually brought back like buckets of material.

GWIN: This is Jennika Greer.

GREER: And, you know, it's a lot of material and it takes a lot of time to sort through. And people will get really excited because they find something they think is a meteorite. And, you know, I take one look at it. Nope.

GWIN: Jennika is a cosmochemist — basically a space rock expert. So she’s the person who looks at the team’s “maybes” under the microscope.

GREER: I think within the Aquarius Project I am known as the “Dream Killer.”

GWIN: But nobody — not even the Dream Killer — could kill the Aquarius dream. The team took a few more trips to the lake, and then spent the rest of the year sifting through the samples. They came up with new ideas to make the sled better. And when summer rolled around again, Chris and the teens went back to the lake four more times.

BRESKY: Yeah. We've pulled a bunch of maybes and we've been in a process, this cyclical process of bringing the maybes over to the cosmochemists and them dashing our hopes to pieces. Getting a bunch of maybes, bringing them over to the Field Museum, them dashing our hopes to pieces.

GWIN: But not all hope is lost. The team still has a pile of “maybes” that even the Dream Killer wants to look at again.

GREER: So these aren't large rocks. They are tiny little spheres, you know, smaller than a pinhead. And they have textures that are suggestive of them being micrometeorites. They're not definitively from the event, but that's because we haven't analyzed them. So it's a new set of maybes. And then everybody was kind of laughing at me in the lab — because there was a bunch of us in our white lab coats — everybody was laughing at me because I couldn't kill their dream that one time!

GWIN: After all, the dream is what keeps this team going. A dream that Shane Larson first had two and a half years ago.

So Shane, tell me, what's it going to feel like if they do find one and this whole crazy —

LARSON: It's gonna be awesome! [laughs] Right? This is going to be so cool if they — right? This is what we set out to do. We have all the fun we wanted to had. We built a sled. We went out on the boat. We'd dragged stuff across the bottom of the lake, that's great. It's fun. That's the reason you do science, right? You want to have fun. But — and we discovered some cool things. We found the quagga mussels, right, that was awesome. But if we find a piece that belonged to the meteorite, you can't ask for anything more. That's what we set off to do. That is absolutely the diamond ring on the top of the gigantic bowl of ice cream, right? I mean, if we actually find one, there's going to be a party like you've never been able to see a party before.

GWIN: But they’re not sending invitations to the party just yet. There’s a good chance that “maybe” pile could turn out to be a bunch of “noes”. Because so far, Chris Bresky and his team have heard a lot of noes and a few maybes. But never a “yes.”

So, okay. Here's a darker question. What if you never find one?

BRESKY: I've worked with other students and other researchers and they all, some of them said it almost would feel inauthentic if we did. And one said, well, how long have we been studying cancer research and not found a cure? And how many scientists have lived their entire lives studying it and not finding a cure. Did that make their science not worthwhile?

GWIN: Hmm.

BRESKY: Did that make their quest not authentic and real? And it kind of brought to light why it hasn't mattered for me during this quest, because I've seen the work the students have done and how they've applied themselves. And the amount that we’ve learned too. So the fact that these students have written the book that others can pick up and read and build from in the future is inspiring. So I don't find it — I don't find it dark at all. I just find it kind of exciting and an ellipses instead of a period. Y'know a “to-be-continued.”

GWIN: The people who are going to continue it are the teenagers. The adults, like Chris and Shane, say the real point of the Aquarius Project is to get a new generation interested in science. Jack Morgan has spent two years with the project, and now he’s close to graduating high school. And when he heads to college, Jack says he’ll take his new coding and engineering skills with him along with some other things he’s learned.

MORGAN: I don't think two years ago I would have been physically able to sit in this recording booth and talk with you.

GWIN: Why so?

MORGAN: Just. I was. It's — I, two years ago I was nowhere near as — I wasn't I wasn't very confident in my own speaking abilities. And I had horrible like stage fright. And it's, this has been -- this has really helped me overcome that and become a much better, a much better speaker, much better at communicating my findings.

[music]

GWIN: So I mean is this like a future career for you?

MORGAN: Oh definitely. I want to probably more to leaning towards astronomy research than something like engineering but definitely want to keep going in science and make a career out of it.

GWIN: Yeah I think you've got future NASA scientist written all over you, dude.

MORGAN: Oh, that'd be amazing.

GWIN: Turns out, the journey to become a NASA scientist starts the same way as the journey to recover a space rock at the bottom of Lake Michigan. It starts with one question: What if?

More after the break.

[break]

GWIN: Meteorites have fascinated humans basically forever. Read about other ways space rocks have inspired imaginations in our show notes, including a schoolteacher in Kansas who became one of the world’s most prolific meteorite hunters.

There’s also the bizarre case of the only person ever known to be hit by a meteorite. A woman in Alabama was at home asleep on the couch then, bam! A rock fell out of the sky. She ended up with a mega-bruise and a fascinating story.

Also, if you want to hear more about the Aquarius Project, the Adler Planetarium created a whole podcast about it. Listen in our show notes. Right there in your podcast app.

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Pinter, Brian Gutierrez, and Robin Miniter.

Our senior producers are Kristen Clark and Jinae West.

Our editor is Ibby Caputo.

Robin Palmer fact-checked this episode.

Our Deputy Director of Podcasts is Emily Ochsenschlager.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes, with additional help from Jerry Busher, Nick Anderson, and Interface Media Group.

Special thanks to Jackson Bierfeldt; Alyssa Edes; WBEZ; and other people involved with the Aquarius Project, including Mark Hammergren, Phil Willink, Marc Fries, Russ Green, Carmen Jones and Liz Coughlin.

Overheard is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is our editorial director.

I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next week.