Meteor shower: More than 1,800 meteorites land at Yale’s Peabody Museum
A wafer-thin slice of meteorite at the Yale Peabody Museum contains otherworldly gems. Olivine crystals, known as peridots to jewelers, are embedded in the specimen’s shiny iron-nickel alloy. When held to light, the yellow crystals glow brightly.
“It’s like stained glass,” said Stefan Nicolescu, the Peabody’s collections manager for mineralogy and meteoritics, holding the specimen, which was cut from a meteorite discovered in 1967 in a dry riverbed near Seymchan in far eastern Russia.
The specimen, called a pallasite, recently arrived at the Peabody along with a trove of more than 1,800 other meteorite specimens donated to Yale by the Planetary Studies Foundation (PSF), a U.S. nonprofit organization that promotes the study of planetary science and astronomy with a focus on meteorites.
The slice of pallasite, perhaps the most eye-catching specimen of the bunch, was donated separately by Paul Sipiera, PSF’s president and CEO. The latest acquisitions, combined with a 2017 donation of about 1,300 meteorites from PSF that had belonged to the late collector James M. DuPont and the Peabody’s prior collection of close to 500 specimens, place the museum’s collection of about 3,600 meteorites among the world’s largest and most scientifically significant.
Among the new acquisitions are rare lunar and Martian meteorites — specimens collected by NASA astronauts during Antarctic expeditions — and pieces containing extraterrestrial organic matter that could offer insights into the origins of life. There’s even a small section of rooftop taken from a home in Park Forest, Illinois, with a hole where a softball-sized meteorite crashed into it in March 2003.
“The PSF acquisitions add a tremendous array of diversity to our collection, and we now have holdings in all the major known types of meteorites,” said Jay Ague, the Henry Barnard Davis Memorial Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Peabody’s curator-in-charge of mineralogy and meteoritics. “It’s a world-class collection that we’re just extremely fortunate to have in our care. Our goal is to make this available for teaching, research, and public outreach in perpetuity.”
Based in Galena, Illinois, PSF is a small research institution that punches above its weight when it comes to meteorite exploration: it has arranged and led three Antarctic expeditions to collect specimens. But it lacks the resources to preserve and manage the collections over the long term, said Sipiera, a planetary geologist who founded the organization with colleagues in 1989 while he was teaching at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois.
“The Peabody has a great reputation,” he said. “The decision ultimately came down to integrity. Meteorites are easily sold, and collections are often broken up. We know we can trust the Peabody’s staff to protect and preserve the collections while making them available to researchers and finding interesting ways to use the meteorites to educate students and the public.”
The Peabody’s meteorite collection, which is considered the oldest in North America, dates to 1807 when people witnessed a meteorite fall over what was then Weston, Connecticut. Yale professors Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley collected and documented fragments of the meteorite. A chemical analysis demonstrated its extraterrestrial origin. It was the first meteorite in the Americas documented in this manner.
PSF’s most recent donation is largely composed of meteorites collected in Northwest Africa and during its three Antarctic expeditions in 1998, 2000, and 2002. (NASA astronauts were part of the first two trips.) Meteorites often are found in desert and polar landscapes because the light color of sand and ice contrasts with dark-colored meteorites, making them easier to spot, Nicolescu said.
The new donations include a specimen collected by NASA astronaut James Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission, during the 2000 Antarctic expedition.
While more than 99% of meteorites come from the asteroid belt — the region of the solar system roughly spanning the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where most asteroids are located — the acquisition includes meteorite fragments that came from the moon and Mars, as well.
Martian meteorites were identified as pieces of the red planet through analyses of gases trapped within them, which match the composition of Mars’ atmosphere, Nicolescu explained.
Lunar meteorites, which have the same gray color associated with the moon, can be identified through comparison with moon rocks collected by the Apollo astronauts.
“It’s like forensic science,” he said. “You are looking for the geochemical fingerprints of the generating body. You have to know what to look for and then you trace it back to where it came from.”
Most meteorites are remnants from the origins of the solar system, which formed about 4.6 billion years ago, Ague said.
“They are fragments of protoplanets and planetesimals — things that were present at the creation and development of our solar system,” Ague said. “They provide windows into the origins of planets in deep time that are unattainable in any other way.”
Studying meteorites allows us to better understand the mineralogical, chemical, physical, and biological evolution of the solar system, Nicolescu explained.
The latest PSF acquisition includes examples of carbonaceous chondrites, a rare type of meteorite that contains organic materials, such as amino acids, that are essential to living matter. They are also the oldest known meteorites — the oldest rocks that have been touched by human hands — sometimes containing compounds that predate the solar system.
“Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins,” Ague said. “On Earth, they are linked to nearly every life process. There are theories asking whether life was seeded somehow by meteorites. This gets speculative very quickly, but the basic information that meteorites can contain amino acids is mind boggling.”
A fragment of the Ivuna meteorite that fell in Mbeya, Tanzania in December 1938 is an example of a carbonaceous chondrite in the recent acquisition. Another is a fragment of a meteorite that landed in Sutter’s Mill, California, in 2012, which contained nanodiamonds, miniscule diamonds that can form during explosions or impact events.
“They are literally stardust,” Ague said. “This is material that predates the formation of our solar system. These nano-diamonds could be much older than the solar system.”
Asked to identify his favorite specimen in the new acquisition, Ague chose the pallasite specimen with its enchanting glow, but he noted that the collection’s extraordinary diversity makes his opinion subject to change.
“If you ask me in a month, I’ll probably have a new favorite,” he said.
The pallasite, and perhaps other specimens from the recent acquisition, will be displayed in the Peabody’s galleries when the museum reopens to the public in 2024 following a transformative, building-wide renovation.