by Jim Brace-Thompson
Within their collections, many a rockhound has at least one sample of a space rock, better known as a meteorite. Meteorites are truly rare. One meteorite researcher has been contacted by 2,100 people who claimed to have discovered one. Of the 2,100, only seven had found a true meteorite. The rest of the specimens mailed in were hematite or magnetite (iron ores), heavy minerals such as galena, slag from smelting, or just common rocks. The researcher wryly noted that many of the samples folks sent to him of rocks that “amazingly appeared out of nowhere” on driveways or in lawns were the same size as rocks that might fit in a child’s palm and be thrown into the air. Still, true meteorites do exist and are sometimes found by amateur rockhounds.
To learn about the appeal of these unearthly rocks, amateur rockhounds of the Ventura Gem & Mineral Society (VGMS) journeyed late last year to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), home to one of the most active groups of space science and meteorite researchers in the world. Appropriately enough, given this research activity, the UCLA Department of Earth & Space Sciences holds the largest collection of meteorites on the West Coast. With more than 2,500 samples from 1,500 different meteorites, it is also the fifth largest collection in the United States.
Meteorites have remained virtually unchanged since the time when the planets within our solar system were forming, some 4.5 billion years ago. From them, therefore, scientists—with the right tools—can tease out of them information about what our early solar system may have been like. They’ve been described as “cosmic history” and “celestial fossils” that provide a precious glimpse into the distant past, long before life gained a foothold on planet Earth.
For the full article, see the March 2017 issue.