AGU AMA:Hi Reddit! I’m David Baratoux, Editor of Journal of Geophysical Research, Planets, and I'm Hasnaa Chennaoui-Aoudjehane,Professor at U of Casablanca, Morocco, we are here to talk about meteorites from Morocco and hot deserts and the promotion of planetary sciences in Africa. Ask Us Anything!


I am David Baratoux, Senior Researcher and geologist at the Institute of Research for Sustainable Developement (IRD), France, and Editor of Journal of Geophysical Research, Planets. I spent 15 years at the University of Toulouse exploring Planets, Mars in particular. In 2013, I chose to move to the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar (Senegal). What is a planetary scientist doing in Africa? Planetary Scientists explore our solar system and beyond, and address fundamental questions for humanity: what’s the origin of the Earth and life? These questions should not be a privilege for a small number of countries. Planetary and Space Sciences are a strong driver for societal, ethical, technological and economic development. They drive generations of young students toward a scientific career. So, we’re here to discuss the issues, challenges and benefits of strengthening education and research programs in Planetary and Space Sciences in Africa. We’ll also discover an untapped great potential of Africa and the pioneering work of emerging groups.

I am Hasnaa Chennaoui-Aoudjehane, Professor of Geochemistry and Meteoritics sciences at the Hassan II University of Casablanca, Morocco and co-head of the Africa Initiative for Space and Planetary Sciences, an initiative that is presented in a publication in EOS. I'm working on Meteoritics and Planetary Sciences (M&PS) since 2000, I have introduced this topic in Morocco, with various actions including elaboration of courses, formation of PhD students, communicating about M&PS to public media and scientific community. M&PS plays a fundamental role on the improvement of the fundamental knowledge on the origin of the Universe, the Solar System, planets including the Earth, as well as the origin of water and life on Earth, or the masse extinctions. Despite an important part of meteorites are collected in the Sahara, Meteoritics and planetary sciences are underrepresented in Africa. I would like to contribute to strengthen M&PS education and research programs all over Africa to offer new opportunities for scientific and social and economic development. My conviction is that Planetary and Space Sciences are essential for the future of humankind and it's my engagement to make sure that African scientists get more and more involved!

We’ll be back at 12pm ET to answer your questions. Ask Us Anything!

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Where is the best place in Africa for a telescope?


Hi, there is no simple answer to this. Studies must be conducted to determine the quality of sky of astronomical observations (seeing), and such studies were done, for instance, before the installation of the Astronomical Observatory of the University Cadi Ayyad in the Atlas Mountain. What is certain is that there are plenty of potentially very good sites for astronomy in Africa, as Africa has the darkest nightsky of all continental areas in average. And there are also arid regions, desert, where the climate is highly favorable. In places, the dust is a concern, like in Senegal, but it is possible to conceive research programs that are feasible with the local conditions, especially in planetary sciences.

Hello, it's wonderful to have you here.

Both of you have mentioned that Space Exploration is becoming an increasingly integral part of human society. Can you see a point where the harnessing of extraterrestrial mineral sources would render mining on Earth obsolete?


Hello ! It’s a great question. It’s true there are considerable ressources (base and precious metals, water) and this fact has started to attract the attention of investors (see for instance the planetary resources company who is doing R&D in this area). We do have not yet the technologies for economically viable mining of asteroids the cost (energy) for this is a great obstacle. But I’m in favor of encouraging research in this direction for two reasons. First, there may be a good synergy between research and exploration as in the case of the Earth where significant progresses in understanding the geology of our planet have been made thanks to private-public collaboration (e.g., West African Exploration Initiative, a successful public-private partnership focusing on mineral resources in West Africa, mentioned in the EOS papers Second, research about mining of asteroids may also favor a more sustainable and responsable mining activity on the Earth, for instance, by developing techniques for extraction that use less energy or water.

How do you approach the problem of skeptics saying that there are more pressing issues in Africa that deserve attention before planetary sciences? While a push in space and science interest is of course wonderful, it's hard to shake off the feeling that any money being used for this could be better used in other areas in Africa. What are your thoughts on this issue?


Of course we are aware that there are health, food, education problems in Africa, but to solve these problems, we have to build a strong educated African societies. Our societies need more interest and more education focused on STEM, it's one of the keys of the development. Planetary and Space sciences are fundamental to develop the continent, investment on these topics are more for a long term development; missing them will continue strengthen the gap between developed countries and Africa.

What is your biggest wish for the future of space exploration?

What are you currently following and supporting the most in the field of research, and what do you really wish to succeed?

How did you decide that you want to do what it is you do now?


Hasnaa: My dream is about the creation of An African Space Agency. I'm working on meteorites and impact craters, I hope that our initiative will make planetary sciences more visible in Africa and get more interest by institutional and all publics. I'm working on meteorites because of the very big number of meteorites collected in Morocco. Meteorites are fascinating material, they give so many information on our history.

What is your biggest wish for the future of space exploration?

What are you currently following and supporting the most in the field of research, and what do you really wish to succeed?

How did you decide that you want to do what it is you do now?


I wish that more African scientists become involved in space exploration programs and could contribute to the analyses of the present and future data collected in our solar system. There are already many African scientists who moved to Europe or US to be involved in such programs, but my wish is that such research groups would form on the African continent, and remain based there, for the benefits of all Africans.

Welcome Drs. Baratoux and Chennaoui-Aoudjehane,

Congratulations on your successes thus far. My question is this -- do you believe that Africa's unique geological history will be an asset to you and the initiative? And how might you leverage those assets to promote Planetary and Space Sciences across the African continent?


I totally agree that Africa has a unique and incredibly rich geological history, we hope that the well developed community of geologists in Africa will be a great support of the initiative. Most researchers on Meteoritics and Planetary Sciences are initially geologists, there is a direct link between Geology and Planetary Sciences, we are ready to support all colleagues in Africa that are interested on working on these topics.

Welcome Drs. Baratoux and Chennaoui-Aoudjehane,

Congratulations on your successes thus far. My question is this -- do you believe that Africa's unique geological history will be an asset to you and the initiative? And how might you leverage those assets to promote Planetary and Space Sciences across the African continent?


Oh Yes, it’s definitively an asset. With 20 confirmed impact craters, and much more to discover, which are also waiting for African geologists willing to learn the recognition criteria for impact structures. And there are the craton nuclei which contain records of the Early Earth history. Their studies provide insight about the emergence of plate tectonics and life. In the EOS paper Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences ( there is a full paragraph entitled "Tapping into Africa’s Wealth of Geological History". This paragraph mentions other examples, such as martian analogues (dry lakes) in Egypt. It is just the right time for Africa Scientists to take more advantage of this asset.

Thank you Drs. for answering our questions and taking your time to shed light on this fascinating topic!

As a layman in the world of astronomy, I was wondering, why is getting telescopes and facilities on the African continent so important? Are there different conditions which would lend themselves to fruitful study, or is it more about expanding the capability of African research and allow more participation by local scientists?

I look forward to all of your responses.


David: Hi, Both answers are correct – There are some astronomical events that can be only observed from some part of the Earth, such as solar eclipses, stellar occullations by asteroids and even the observations conditions of certain objets may be better under the latitudes of Africa. For instance, Jupiter is very low on the horizon at the moment in Europe, and that’s why we are starting a new project which aim at monitoring impact flashes in the atmosphere of Jupiter (kind of meteors forming when asteroids of comets penetrate the atmosphere of Jupiter) in Morocco and Senegal. It’s better than having to transport temporarily telescopes to Africa for observations that do not necessarily involve African scientists.

Do you support the notion that exportation of meteorites from Morocco should be stopped? The country is exporting valuable scientific resources to private buyers around the world and I wonder if the Moroccan govt is aware of it.


Hasnaa: There is not yet any regulation on Moroccan geoheritage, we are working with the ministry of Energy and Mining on a project of law that should be smart and cleaver and on a win win model. There is no benefit on stopping export of meteorites from Morocco, but there may be a big benefit to everybody to regulate it. Many people are living from meteorites in the South of Morocco, it's an important source of revenue for them, but this richness is limited, it not renewable. It would be much better to develop a sustainable system with for example regional museums.

Greetings! Can you tell us what attracted you to your study of meteorites, and what do you find most important of the information that they tell us?


Hasnaa: Meteorites are fascinating material; they are the oldest materiel known on Earth. Some of them are very similar to our home planet on the first stage of its formation, some of them informs on the origin of water and life on Earth and their fall maybe catastrophic and may causes mass extinction species. Iron meteorites are the core of proto-planets not more existing.

What is the most difficult part about conducting astronomical studies in Africa?


The most difficult challenge is « starting something from nothing » as it may be the case for astronomy in some African countries. Where do you start where there is no infrastructure, and lecture, no department ? And when even the programs at schools do not include basic courses about the solar system, the origin or the Earth or Universe ? The case of the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Cadi Ayyad in Morocco is an inspiring example. Prof. Zouhair Benkhaldoun was a young research when he started this project, and the observatory has now been involved in fantastic discoveries of explonanets! I wish similar success stories for the more recent Entoto observatory in Ethiopia. So in summary, conducting astronomical studies in Africa is feasible, but this requires the commitment of one or several researchers who dedicate their entire life and career to such a project and this must be accompanied by governmental actions. This is the challenge for S. Salma Sylla, who is starting a Ph.D. in astronomy in Senegal (in collaboration with Univ. Cadi Ayyad) if she wants to be able to develop astronomy in her country.

With most young people in Africa (which means most people) wanting careers in fields that traditionally pay handsomely such as banking or medicine, how do you encourage people to want to pursue an education in a Space related subject that holds a slim chance of possible employment after they finish school?


Hello, my immediate reaction to this is : I do not need to encourage them – I know already many students who would be willing to have the occasion to start a Ph.D. in planetary or space sciences, and they are motivated students. I’m thinking for instance about Mayssa in Tunisia, who is struggling to find a PhD fellowship outside of Tunisia, as the opportunity in her country is near zero. But there is another important question here. As in Europe, US, or Japan, students with a research experience in Planetary and Space Sciences will not necessary work in this field after their Ph.D. But what they learn during their Ph.D., such as remote sensing methods, or analytical tools for characterizing meteoritic samples, are useful for a much broader area (exploration mining, environnement studies, management of land ressources, mapping, material science, etc..). So the question is more about providing a high-level research experience to favor employment. And that’s exactly what we (the authors of the initiative) have in mind : PSS for society.

Why isn't JGR Planets open access?


Articles published in JGR Planets (as many other AGU journals) are open access 2 years after publication, which is a significant progress. What’s more, AGU data policies imply that the data used to produce a scientific article should be made available to the community (see the link here : This a significant step for researchers in Earth or Space science, and this means that lots of data and tool may be freely available for African Scientists that are not initially part of the scientific networks were such data/tools were accessible.

What is the most important thing you have learned from your research? What is the funnest experience your line of work has lead to?


Hasnaa: The most important thing I have learned is that you never finish learning and when you solve a scientific issue, you have much many others that are opened. I have always a lot of fun and fantastic memories on field missions on meteorites in the Moroccan deserts with wonderful people from these areas. The best one is the Tissint martian meteorite fall on field work and great scientific results published in Science (Chennaoui Aoudjehane et al 2012).

What is the most important thing you have learned from your research? What is the funnest experience your line of work has lead to?


David: I had the chance to get experiences in various fields of research, and I have published both in the field of astronomy, geophysics or geology, which means that I have a broad knowledge…of my ignorance ! The questions that we have to address are so complicated that collaboration and multi-disciplinary approaches are essential. The funniest experience is definitively the move to Dakar at the end of 2013, a long list of funny (and great) stories since that move !

I've never heard of any significant meteorite discoveries in the Sahara or Morocco... can you expound on that a bit?

Has the possibility arisen that given the extreme temperatures on earth, we can use that experience to explore some of the more extreme environments on other planets in our solar system?

How do you plan on not only getting Africa up to speed on current scientific innovations but also to get the continent or specific areas to become innovators and on the forefront of planetary science themselves?


Hasnaa: There are thousands of meteorites collected in the Sahara and Morocco, these meteorites participate to at lease 50% of the publications on Meteoritics and planetary sciences. Some of them are with a unique valuable importance such as Tissint meteorite that is the fifth Martian meteorite fall or one other meteorite with the acronym of Black beauty that is the oldest martian meteorite ever found. By educating students to planetary sciences and providing the universities by analytical material, we can develop the research on these topics and may have African researchers innovating much more, that the aim of the initiative.

Salam! Hi! As a half-Moroccan, I'm surprised to hear about meteorites in Morocco. Where are most of them? How involved is Morocco in space?

I feel that Africa is rapidly catching up with the "space giants", how accurate is that?


Morocco is one of the most important place in the word on meteorite collection. They are essentially collected in the Moroccan Sahara in the desert. Morocco is well represented in Meteoritics with a great development of this science there since 2000. There are PhD students, cosmochemistry courses, important meeting organised (eg the 77th Meteoritical Society meeting organised in Casablanca on September 2014 by a Moroccan team). We still need mostly analytical equipment and more researchers involved. We also need to have national museums to preserve and show this priceless geoheritage. We hope that with our initiative, Africa will be catching the "space giants".

Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA! What part of your research has been most interesting (in your opinion)?


Laboratory research as well as field campaigns.

Hey cool! I work at an ESS dept that does isotope analysis for meteorite hunters, and I help maintain the billing database.

I think what you guys do is great! It makes jobs in the field and the lab, and your thin sections get kept for museums. Keep on digging!


Thank you for your encouragement, it would be nice to have people like you endorsing this initiative and helping on performing analysis for African PhD students and researchers, and/or training them to technical analysis.

Do you feel that there is enough communication between different fields of Earth & Planetary Sciences (eg Astronomy, geology, geophysics) or even within each of these fields. Would better communication be beneficial?


We strongly believe that it's a great benefit for all these communities to be more in touch and to work together. There research areas are all connected; they need each other, but not enough communicating. One nice example of our encouragement to this rapprochement is the organisation of the Arab Impact Cratering and Astrogeology Conference in Amman (2009), Casablanca (2011, 2014), Algiers (2017).

Dr Baratoux, what's the state of science education in Senegal, especially compared to science education in France and Western Europe?


Hi, I can only speak from my experience with Ph.D. students that I am supervising here, mostly in geology (since 2013) and planetary sciences. There are gaps and problems that are more pronounced than in France and Western Europe : some difficulties with maths and physics, for instance, insufficient experience in the field too, except for some students who have already various experiences in mining companies (which is more common than in french universities). A major issue is the number of students – sometimes more than 1000 in undergraduate courses in geology. I am also concerned with the difficulties in programming and using computer tools, and I’m trying to fill this gap too, for instance with the organizing of training sessions on programming, using free languages, such as Python. But there are also an advantages that can be decisive here if an education of quality is given : the motivation to learn is extremely high.

With the tale of Atlantis being popular, I always wondered certain things about our planet. Do you think certain continents sunk below the ocean (Continents that used to be above sea level.) and we don't even know it? I remember reading about Zealandia earlier this year.


David: Hi, you would need to look at a good sketch describing how plate tectonics works to understand the fate of continents (they do not sink below the ocean). But what you have already understood is the fact that the surface of the Earth was not the same in the past than it is today. We live on a dynamic planet and one of the objective of the geologist is to decipher this history. Other planets are or have been active too, and we should also keep in mind, for instance, that Mars was different in the past than it is today.


I'm a member of a local astronomical society and we have regular public presentations on topics about space.

Our next one is about asteroids, to honor world asteroid day.

What are some things people should know about asteroids, meteors, comets etc?


David: I think you can emphasize the roles these objects have played on the evolution of our planet and life. For instance, a significant fraction of the water you drink everyday has been brought to the Earth by comets, early in the history of our planet. I also usually like to mention the case of gold and certain precious metals, such as platinum. These elements are « siderophile », or « iron-lovers » if you prefer, and they were originally depleted by the formation of the metallic core of our planet. There is a widely debated hypothesis that the present concentration of these elements in the Earth (in the mantle) is the result of meteoritic impacts – a late veneer that has replenished the mantle with these precious metals - . I am also certain that you will mention the role of large collisions on mass extinctions, so overall, the message is that we can’t ignore the role of asteroids and comets if we want to understand the history of our planet.

Every time I drive through the Middle Atlas Mountains, I'm surprised by the number of small (3-5 meter diameter) craters in fields on the side of the roads. Would you guess that these are mostly the result of a single large shower, or just an accumulation of impacts over time?


It's not easy to recognise an impact crater, there are scientific proofs to prospect to identify an impact crater. We had a PhD student that defended her thesis on 2015 about the research of impact craters in Morocco, she identified most circular structure in the countries but not of them was proved as an impact crater (Chaabout et al 2015). Then latter, by pure chance, Shatter cones has been discovered in the High Atlas Mountains proving the first impact structure in Morocco (Agoudal impact structure Chennaoui Aoudjehane et al 2016). This structure is not circular and there is no more crater, it has been totally eroded. So, not all circular structures are impact craters and impact craters maybe totally eroded and not showing any circular form.

With space travel shifting more to the private sector, where profits and results becoming more of a factor, where does planetary science fit within these early phases?


David: This means that the number of jobs in this sector will rise in the future, and this will provide opportunity for employment in this domain.

What are you presently following and supporting the most difficult part about conducting astronomical studies in Africa for a telescope?


Hi, Please see the answer to northforthesummer, your questions are very similar. David

Dr. Chennaoui-Aoudjehane,

What isotope system do you specialize in? I am a master's student in geology right now working on osmium isotopes in crude oils.


Hasnaa: I'm not specialised on isotope system, I worked first on noble gazes geochemistry then moved to work on meteorites mostly on the identification of high pressure silica phases by using cathodoluminescence images and spectra.

What are the important "known unknowns" in your field? That is, what do you have evidence of, but no plausible explanation for?


David: Hi, Most obvious answer is probably the origin of life. This question is a major driver of the exploration of the solar system, in particular of the planet Mars, with specific instruments on board of present and future rovers to find traces of biological activity. For the moment, life is known only on our our planet, but it becomes clear that Mars has been habitable in the past. So we need to understand if life has been developed or not, and why.

There are also important unknowns about the interior of planets. The most direct way to « observe » the interior of a planet is seismology : the science that focuses on the propagation of seismic waves inside the planetary interior. But such data exists only for the Earth, and for the Moon thanks to the Apollo program. The NASA InSight mission to be launched 2018 will hopefully help to determine the martian interior.

Our knowledge of planets is also very heterogeneous. With numerous NASA and ESA missions in particular, we know now a lot about the martian surface, about its mineralogy, its chemistry and more generally about its geological history. But in comparison, little is known about the geology of Venus, about the possible existence of active volcanoes, or even about the age of the geological units at its surface.

What are the important "known unknowns" in your field? That is, what do you have evidence of, but no plausible explanation for?


Hasnaa: Is there any meteorite from Earth? and form Mercure or Venus?

Both of you have mentioned space exploration and Dr. Chennaoui-Aoudjehane says he works on the study of meteor and mass extinction events. A lot of this study involves space missions. What do you think would be the challenge of launching space missions from Africa (or Morocco specifically)?

As a side question, are there are plans to host all-sky cameras to detect and characterize meteors?


Lauching space missions is an end part of a very long process that begin by the creation of a space agency by the government. It should be on priority of the nation and the continent. We have a project of installation of all-sky cameras in Morocco for meteors detections, this project is already initiated and the first cameras installed.

A couple days ago I saw what looked like a meteorite slowly making its way to the middle of the sky from one of the edges. It looked like it was green in color, only to stop at the dead middle while becoming red/orange-ish and it started flickering and vibrating then it slowly started moving in a parabolic path before rapidly vanishing downwards. It was quicker than any other aircraft.

What was that all about? Thank you.


When a meteor enters into the atmosphere, the velocity is so high that the external part of the rock is vaporised. These vapours of elements from the rock (Fe, Mg, Si ...) gives special colours to the light trail following the meteor depending on the chemical composition of the meteor. The melting and vaporisation concern only the exterior of the rock, it cover the meteorite by a thin dark fusion crust covering all fresh falls.

I am very interested in meteorite hunting! I know places like deserts, dry lake beds and snow are good becuase it is easier to spot meteorites against the bright bakcground but what are some other good ways of finding them? Just brute force and a magnet? Any tips?

Also I wanted to share this photo of my office as it had a Meteoroid formation schematic on the whiteboard at the time!


The best areas for meteorite hunting are deserts, hot or cold (Antarctic). In hot desert, the best are the old and flat plateaux, not covered by black rocks. Magnet is not really helpful except for hunting for iron or stony-iron meteorites, you have to familiarise your eyes with the aspect and the colour of meteorites and to familiarise you eyes with the colour and aspect of rocks in the area.

As an American (learning French!) undergrad considering coming to France for studies in sustainability and oceanography, what advice would you have for a young student interested in sustainability, studying in France, and getting paid to study the science I love?



Bonjour ! You probably notice that our new president has sent a specific welcome message to American scientists willing to work on such topics in our country, so I hope this will facilitate your move to France. Welcome in our country ! Advise ? Probably continue to learn french ;) We have great scientists in this area, and I’ll be happy to put you in contact with some of them if you wish.

Assuming 'business as usual', will climate change mean that we humans will need to find another planet to live on? If so, which are suitable? How would we get there? How would we live there? Thanks.


Hi: No, it's not where we should go. We need to focus our efforts to "make our planet great again".

If metorites evolved from meteors then why are there still meteors?


David: Hi, when a fragment of asteroid enters the atmosphere, the velocity is so high (> 13 km/s) that the fragment is heated up to high temperature (> 10 000 °C) and this produces gases and plasmas from the rocks. This phenomenon is responsible for the light that we observe on the ground, the « meteor ». The fragment is then progressively decelerated by the atmospheric drag, and if it has not been entirely vaporized, the fragment will continue its trajectory toward the surface, without emitting any light. It’s what specialists of meteors and meteorites call the "dark flight". When the fragment hits the ground, we call it a meteorite.

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