Roberta Kwok Tracks an Asteroid as It Hurtles toward Earth

Roberta Kwok Courtesy of Roberta Kwok

In an award-winning story, Roberta Kwok recounted the story of an asteroid from the time it was spotted until the meteorites hit Earth. This event represents the first time that astronomers were able to track such a trajectory in real time.

Kwok’s remarkably detailed narrative won the American Geophysical Union’s Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism (Features). “The Rock That Fell to Earth” appeared in Nature on March 25, 2009. Here, Kwok tells TON co-founder Jeanne Erdmann the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Where did the idea for this story come from?

The idea came from Oliver Morton, an editor at Nature. I was doing an internship at Nature after my graduate studies in science writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Oliver knew that the paper on the meteorites was coming out in the magazine and he wanted a narrative feature to go along with it. The meteorites story was the first feature I wrote for Nature. Until then, I’d written some online news, blog posts, and briefs for the print magazine. I got really lucky; this was a great assignment.

What were your first steps in reporting the piece?

I had an advance copy of the paper; there were about 35 authors and Alex Witze (then print news editor for Nature and my mentor there) helped point out which sources would be best to contact first. I also looked through some news coverage from a few months prior when the asteroid hit. I also had some information from NASA about this asteroid; so I starting calling sources. I didn’t travel for the story—I did all my interviews over the phone. We had a tight deadline because we knew that the paper was coming out.

How long did you work on the story?

I had to finish up one news story when this assignment came and then after that I worked on it full time. I spent a week reporting and writing the first draft, and the editing and revising took place over a week and a half, during which I made follow-up calls. I think I interviewed about 28 people and about half didn’t make it in.

How did you decide how to structure the story?

The structure was in place from the start. Oliver wanted the story to start with the moment the asteroid was spotted and take off from there and then continue to the point where the meteorites were found in Sudan. This was a ready-made narrative with three acts: spotting the asteroid, tracking the asteroid and having it collide, and then finding the meteorites afterwards.

I knew that I wanted the human story from each stage: everyone from the guy who spotted it first, to the people tracking the asteroid, to the people picking up the meteorites.

How did that planned structure influence your reporting?

I wanted enough detail to reconstruct what happened at each point and then link those scenes back together. I would start by asking each person to tell me his part of the story from beginning to end. The first question that I asked was: “How did you hear about the asteroid?” And then we’d go from there. I didn’t have to do much prodding because most of the scientists were natural storytellers and they gave me detail and dialogue and also other people to contact.

Was it easy to reach your sources on short notice?

Most were easy to reach. The only person challenging to reach was Peter Jenniskens, the scientist who wanted to find the meteorites and helped to lead the expedition in Sudan. The problem was he was in Sudan again looking for more meteorites—without email or phone access—when I was reporting the story. We knew that Peter was in Sudan but we thought he’d be traveling to The Netherlands later that week, where I’d be able to reach him, but he ended up slightly extending his stay. I tried to reach as many people as possible to see if they had heard from him—I was contacting his parents and his brother and his wife and his colleagues, without much luck. No one knew much more than I did. There were a few tense days when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to reach him. Peter’s wife gave me his parents’ phone number, but they only spoke Dutch, so the most I could do was ask another Dutch-speaking source to pass on my message to them. I never actually managed to reach his brother; I think I tried calling, emailing, and sending a LinkedIn message, but without success. A scientist, Mark Boslough at Sandia National Laboratories, had mentioned a filmmaker who was with Peter Jenniskens in the desert, making a documentary about the meteorites. So he gave me the filmmaker’s email address and that’s how I finally reached Peter.

Was there any aspect of the story you would like to have done differently?

One piece that’s missing from the feature is the point of view of the students in Sudan who found the meteorites. Ideally, I would have liked to have a scene where we see the students finding those first few pieces as they’re searching the desert. I actually did get one of the students on the phone but the language barrier was too much; we just couldn’t understand each other. Instead I wrote it from the POV of Peter Jenniskens: Someone runs up to him and says that a student found something and he comes over and checks it out; but we don’t have the moment when the rock was spotted.

How did you and your editors shape the draft during editing?

Rich Monastersky, a features editor, helped balance the various points in the last section, where we discuss the implications and significance of the find. Initially, there was more information about the chemical analysis of the meteorites and about possible future studies with those rocks. Instead, he had me focus on the context: the fact that this was one of the most direct links they had found between asteroids and meteorites, what we had known about those links before, and examples of missions that had gone to asteroids.

I remember one change that Oliver made that was really important. In the initial draft, I’d opened with the scientist finding the asteroid and then added the typical nut graf—actually two grafs—foreshadowing what the story would cover. Oliver thought that inclusion of the nut graf drained tension from the story and made him less interested in wanting to read more, so we cut that from the opening and instead just very briefly explained in the beginning that the find was significant because it was the first time scientists were going to be able to track an asteroid in real time. That was good advice, and one lesson I would take with me, from writing this story, is that you don’t always have to follow the conventional structure.

A glimpse behind the scenes:


Jeanne Erdmann
Jeanne Erdmann Carl Erdmann

Jeanne Erdmann is co-founder and editor-at-large of The Open Notebook. Follow her on Twitter @jeanne_erdmann.

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