The Stars Above Mines: Meteorites 101

It is rumored that Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would rather believe two Yankee professors would lie, than that stones have fallen from the heavens.” In the grand scheme of humanity, the idea that rocks could come from anywhere but the Earth is both new and diametrically opposed to many of the ancient schools of thought. To many ancient cultures, meteorites were a physical embodiment of a message from the divine–a reasonable guess given the times.

Beyond disguising as powerful artifacts, meteorites gained importance through their more practical uses to early humans. Many ancient tools have been found to be made from meteoritic materials. Since most meteorites are made of some variety of metal alloy, it placed the bearers of these tools ahead of their stone using counterparts. After the age of iron processing had begun, meteorites were still important as a source of inspiration. Many of the meteorites that were found after a witnessed fall are thought to have been incorporated into religious temples and ceremonies. A particular Roman coin has an image of a large rock, presumed to be a meteorite, being pulled on an ornate cart.

When the idea that meteorites were actually rocks from space, not touches of the divine, was announced by Ernst Florens Chladni in 1794, the idea was ridiculed. It would take a decade for the true story of meteorites to be taken as the truth.

In modern times, meteorites are much more valuable than just lumps of iron. Beyond the idea of a message from the heavens, meteorites have been used to determine how the Solar System formed and what the conditions of that time period were. A very rare fraction of meteorites have been isotopically linked to other planets and planetoids in the solar system, giving astrochemists actual data sets to work with. There is even one meteorite that appears to have come from a much younger Earth. It was probably thrown into space by a powerful impact event where it then hung out for many millions of years.

To an extent, meteorites are misrepresented in common culture. The idea of burning rocks falling at incomprehensible speeds, creating huge craters is a correct assumption to make. Provided the meteor is large enough, but for small meteorites the heat imparted by the atmosphere is lost as material is sloughed off during the fall so by the time the meteor gets close to the ground, it has slowed down from several kilometers per second to a handful of meters per second. They still pack a punch and have been known to punch through cars and houses, but they aren’t fast enough to make craters bigger than a small hole.

As seen this past February when the Chelyabinsk meteorite came streaking across the skies of Russia, most meteorites do not make it to the ground in one piece. One of the best ways to find meteorites in the modern era is to look up the location of found meteorites and screen the whole area. Other than that, keep your eyes on the skies!

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