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The Diamond-Clad Town Built on an Asteroid Crater

Diamond town asteroid
Nordlingen is built on the asteroid crater that was formed 14.8 million years ago. Credit: Wolkenkratzer, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

The small town of Nordlingen in Germany is perhaps one of the most visited spots on earth by astronomists, as it is built on an asteroid crater and its buildings are filled with diamonds created by the asteroid impact.

A BBC reporter described the scene a few years ago: “As I climbed the narrow staircase of the gothic church tower in Nordlingen, Germany, the worn stone steps appeared to glimmer in the sunlight, bringing unexpected flashes of light to what should have been a dark, grey climb to the top.

“That’s because the entire tower is made out of suevite stone, and enclosed in it are small diamonds,” Horst Lenner, the tower watchman, told me enthusiastically.

“Luckily they’re very, very small, otherwise the tower would’ve been taken down a long time ago,” he joked, a wide smile unfolding across his face.

Nordlingen is built on the asteroid crater that was formed 14.8 million years ago. It’s about 25 kilometers wide and 100 to 150 meters deep nowadays. Scientists say that when the asteroid hit, it left a crater 1.5 kilometers deep.

Diamonds created from the impact of the asteroid

The impact of the massive asteroid produced such intense heat and pressure that the bubbles of carbon within it transformed almost instantaneously into tiny diamonds. And there were billions of them.

Scientists say that the asteroid hit a local graphite deposit creating an estimated 72,000 tons of diamonds. However, the diamonds are minuscule, and the biggest ones are just two millimeters in diameter. The buildings at Nordlingen with stone from local queries all contain these tiny diamonds.

During the construction of the town, which was first mentioned in records in the 9th century AD, settlers didn’t realize the stone they were using was embedded with millions of tiny diamonds in a concentration seen nowhere else in the world.

It took a whole thousand years for the Germans to realize that their beloved Nordlingen stood in a meteor crater. Until 1960, they thought it was a volcanic crater.

This theory was disproved by two American scientists, Eugene Shoemaker and Edward Chao, who scratched the walls of a church and discovered it contained quartz, a type of rock only formed from meteor impacts.

Nowadays, it is a popular tourist attraction for Germans who like to climb to the top of the St. George church to take in the mesmerizing views of the quaint old town.

Also popular is the Ries Crater Museum which displays a moon rock from the Apollo 16 mission.

Related: Diamonds From Space May Fall to Earth

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