Wisconsin Fireball on Feb. 6th, 2017

Youth Authored: Design a Magnetic Underwater Meteorite Sled - The Aquarius Project

Help Scientists and Teens Recover Sunken Meteorites in Lake Michigan

First, watch the video to understand the whole story!

On Monday, February 6, 2017, around 1:30 a.m. CST, a sonic boom shook the residents of Central Wisconsin as a bright green fireball streaked through the night sky. The sound was that of a meteor, nearly the size of a minivan, entering the atmosphere. It broke up as it hit our atmosphere, and splashed down into Lake Michigan! Thanks to eye witness, and weather radar, we know where it fell. Now we need to design a way to recover these meteorite fragments from the lake bottom. 

Quick video link on the difference between comets, asteroids, meteors and meteorites!

Teen explorers from Chicago, led by scientists from the Adler Planetarium's Far Horizons program, The Shedd Aquarium, and The Field Museum, have teamed up to take on this underwater meteorite hunt. But they need your help! 

Our Design Challenge:

We need to design a way, to recover these meteorites from the lake floor. Luckily, we've been working with a group of scientists, that gave us a starting point. Now, a project like this has never been attempted before, since when meteorites fall in water, it's usually in the deep ocean. In Lake Michigan, these meteorites aren't as deep, and the lake bottom, not as complex as the ocean floor. To undertake this project we’ve been working with all sorts of scientists: researchers, marine biologists (to understand the science of the lake), meteoritics experts, meteorologits, astronomers, and teens of all backgrounds. And we need YOUR help with our project too, because the more minds involved, the greater the innovation! To retrieve our meteorites, we need to design an underwater meteorite retrieval sled that will be pulled along the lake bottom behind a boat. This is where you come in! For our design challenge, we need your innovation skills to help our team design an underwater meteorite retrieval unit! Here’s our prototype (context below on how it works)


Teens and Scientists work hand in hand on the MUMS Jr. Prototype
Teens and Scientists work hand in hand on the MUMS Jr. Prototype

Why a Sled?


The "Rosebud" Technique

Underwater sleds are used to tow underwater cameras along the lake bottom behind boats, and seemed like our best bet for the sandy lake bottom in the area of the meteorite fall. We may try to use skis on the bottom of our sled to keep it from sinking too deep in the bottom.

Why Magnetic?

An essential part of the magnetic underwater meteorite sled is the magnet (or magnets). This is because around 95% of meteorites contain ferrous metals (magnetic, commonly iron rich metals). It is hypothesized that the iron-nickel metals in meteorites come from the cores of planets before they cooled and fully formed! After consulting with the meteoritics experts and astronomers involved in this project, we believe that the meteorites that we’re searching for can be retrieved using strong magnets.

Our Basic Sled Frame

A TinkerCAD Design of a Basic Sled Frame
TinkerCAD Design of Basic Sled Frame

Description of the basic prototype design above: (Click here for the link to the TinkerCAD file)

  1. The red portion of the model is the frame of the underwater sled. This frame ensures the structural integrity of the model.
  2. The grey portion is the magnetic crossbar and its attachments (adjustable height)
  3. The blue is for an underwater camera, so you can see what the sled sees while searching and assess how the sled design is working during tests. 
  4. The green is for flotation to ensure this end stays upright when dropping the sled into the water.


What's the problem here? Getting started on your magnetic meteorite sled design.

What do you think will make your meteorite sled most efficient?

  • What is the bottom of Lake Michigan made of?
  • The sled will be pulled underwater behind a boat; what design elements should be added/subtracted to take this into account?
  • Once the sled attracts the meteorites with a magnet, where will they be stored?
    • What happens when the sled is pulled up from the bottom and onto the boat?
    • What keeps these meteorites from falling off?
  • Take a look at our first test - 360 VR Sled Test 
    • We made "test meteorites" or meteorite simulants, out of concrete and magnetic metal fragments
      • Watch how the small gray meteorite simulants react/or don't to the magnet.
  • When considering this, think of where the meteorite sled will be going...


    Collect Info

    How do you Collect Info for this step of the design process?

    Learn more about projects similar to the Meteorite Sled, their usage, how they’re developed, and conduct general meteorite research. There is little precedent for meteorite recovery in lakes and oceans, but methods are used to retrieve other non space related objects!

    Think About This... 

    • What is the purpose of our mission?
    • In what ways have similar projects been used in the past?
    • What concerns could come with this type of mission, like losing equipment or breakage? How would you address this? 
    • What types of materials should be used and why? 
    Students test their sled design on sand
    Students test their sled design on sand

    Brainstorm Ideas

    Develop sketches or models to help you puzzle through new ideas and solutions.


    • Look at previous iterations of the magnetic sled. Make a list of what elements of the previous designs do you think were effective.
    • Make a list of the design that you think was less effective? 
    • How might ideas or concepts from other fields be applied to this project? 
    • Keep in mind your device needs to be able to withstand the elements (pressure, stress of pull from a boat, friction over sand/rocks/etc).
      • How will you ensure that it is durable? Easily modified? Easy to maneuver?
    Teens sketch magnetic atttachment design
    Teens sketch their magnetic bar design and how to attach it to their sled


    • Brainstorm a list of special features you'd like your sled to have, based on the information you collected above
        • Consider what materials the sled will be made from.
          • What materials will be durable against the wear and tear of use in the lake to withstand the entire hunt 
    • Sketch on paper, at least two different sled designs ​​
      • Trying multiple solutions to the same often sparks surprising innovations
    Far Horizons Teens with their sled
    Teens from Adler Planetarium's Far Horizons and their invention


    Develop Solutions

    Now's the time to take what you've learned from the steps above and develop your own solution for a new sled.

    Try This First


    Use pvc pipe to make a full-scale or half-scale prototype model of your sled. You can't really understand if the sled will slide, hold your magnets and meteorites, until you make a quick sturdy model. Don't worry about making a fancy finished model at this time. Instead, use pvc, cardboard, scissors, and tape to quickly create the large 3D form. See how it looks. Break off different sections, add new pieces, and try new ideas. Take photos of your model.


    Final Design and Testing

    The final step of the design process is to create a more finished model that communicates your ideas to others, and can possibly be tested.  

    Try This

    • What materials will your underwater sled be made of? Choose materials and details to add to your model. Think of using waterproof material to test in a bathtub, pool, or lake. Try on sand, or over rocks!
    • What inspired you to design it that way? How did you come to this conclusion? 
    • Upload additional images of your finished sled model to the slides for your project. Write short captions explaining your ideas.
    • Include a human figure in your final model, so we can see how big your underwater sled really is.