The hefty metal Bendegó meteorite still sits unscathed inside the charred entrance to Brazil’s palatial National Museum, after flames spread through the 200-year-old halls Sunday night.
The iron-and-nickel space rock, weighing in at some 11,800 pounds (5.36 metric tons), withstood flames that ravaged nearly all the ancient paintings, bones, and collections housed inside the main three-story structure, the museum’s deputy director Cristiana Serejo told Brazil’s news organization G1 on Monday.
Serejo estimated that perhaps 10 percent of the museum’s collections survived, though fire investigators will scour the museum to discover exactly what ancient artifacts remain. The museum held mummies, dinosaur fossils, and a wealth of prehistoric Brazilian history.
The precise cause of the blaze is still unknown, but according to Serejo, the museum’s smoke detectors were not working, and the poorly funded museum lacked a modern fire-suppression system.
The cultural losses at the troubled institution have stoked resentment and anger, Brazilian anthropologist Mércio Gomes wrote for CNN, noting that “the inner walls look practically carbonized.”
But when firefighters forced open the museum’s old green doors, the metal Bendegó meteorite still stood stoically at the entrance, a testament to its endurance of both outer space and a scorching plummet through Earth’s atmosphere.
Many small meteorites break apart as they fall through the atmosphere, ravaged by thousand-degree temperatures as relentless atmospheric friction scorches whatever passes through. But the largest metal meteorites can remain largely intact, slamming into the ground as giant masses.
In the case of Bendegó, a young cattle rancher named Domingos da Motta Botelho stumbled upon the hardy cosmic rock in 1784. It’s still Brazil’s largest known meteorite, according to the museum.
The first attempt to move the behemoth rock apparently broke a wooden cart, sending Bendegó stumbling into a stream. Ultimately, the Brazilian government recognized the meteorite’s scientific significance, and hauled it to the National Museum, where it has greeted millions of visitors since 1818.
On Monday, however, the famous Bendegó meteorite met not an intrigued public, but firefighters.