A 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite, older than the Earth itself, was recovered from South Australia’s Lake Eyre on New Year’s Day.

Meteor trace in the Urals, Russia, 2013.

Meteor trace in the Urals, Russia, 2013. Image by Alex Alishevskikh / CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientists from Curtin University in Western Australia spotted a shooting star falling to Earth back in November and have been frantically searching for the meteorite ever since. Using the Desert Fireball Network, a scientific system designed to help retrieve fallen objects from space, which incorporates some 32 cameras set up across South and Western Australia, researchers were eventually able to narrow the landing site of the meteorite to a 500m area.

With drenching rains forecast to hit the area on New Year’s Day, the methodical work of searching for the 1.7kg fireball began. Over the course of a three-day search the team employed an aerial spotter, a drone, two researchers on a quad bike and local Aboriginal guides Dean Stuart and Dave Strangways to locate the meteorite. Miraculously, they found the landing site just hours before the rains hit, washing away all trace of its existence.

Lake Eyre (officially known as Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre) is a massive endorheic lake in outback Australia that dries out seasonally, filling up again when the torrential rains of the rainy season arrive.

Lake Eyre.

Lake Eyre. Image by Johan Fantenberg / CC BY-SA 2.0

With just hours to spare, team leader Phil Bland dug the meteorite out of the claylike sand by hand at the remote site some 6km from the lake’s edge. “It was an amazing team effort, we got there by the skin of our teeth,” Professor Bland told Australia’s ABC.

The meteorite is one of only 20 discovered worldwide with an identifiable orbit, which will allow the team to trace the meteorite back to its original asteroid.

This is the first meteorite retrieved using the extensive Desert Fireball Network. “It is a big deal because space agencies like NASA or JAXA will spend a billion dollars trying to get to an asteroid and bring a sample back, so potentially we can do it for a lot less than that,” Professor Bland said. Using the system, they have already identified another 10 potential landing sites.