After sightings of a meteor that streaked across Portland’s early morning sky on Feb. 19, people from all around came to Geology Professor Alex Ruzicka with questions. Ruzicka and his students study meteorites in the PSU Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory. They do this, Ruzicka said, because the rocks can provide the most direct and detailed information about our solar system’s history–the DNA code to the genetic make-up of the solar system.
After sightings of a meteor that streaked across Portland’s early morning sky on Feb. 19, people from all around came to Geology Professor Alex Ruzicka with questions.
Ruzicka and his students study meteorites in the PSU Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory. They do this, Ruzicka said, because the rocks can provide the most direct and detailed information about our solar system’s history–the DNA code to the genetic make-up of the solar system.
Meteors have had a sudden rise in popularity in Portland recently, Ruzicka said, because of meteor sightings such as last month’s meteorite shower. On the day the meteor was sighted, Ruzicka came to work to find an answering machine full of questions from inquiring minds.
Newspapers wanted to clarify what they saw. So did early morning onlookers. Since then, Ruzicka, two of his students and other local meteorite dealers and enthusiasts have tried to pinpoint the exact location of the fallen meteor, hoping to collect samples and find out what exactly fell from the sky that brisk morning.
What he and others at the meteorite lab believe is that since the fragments landed in an extremely dense area of vegetation and forest. Recovering anything may be impossible.
“We think we’ve pretty much got it centrally located within a 10-mile radius,” Ruzicka said on Tuesday. “It’s somewhere northeast of Pendleton, but unless some of the fragments fell on a sidewalk, good luck finding anything.”
Studying meteorites at PSU
Tucked away on the fourth floor of Science Building 2 sits the Cascadia Meteorite Lab. Inside, the walls are lined with air-tight glass cases which hold some of the rarest rocks in the United States.
Until last summer, there was no actual lab. Ruzicka and his two colleagues, Melinda Hutson and Dick Pugh, were forced to squat in various labs around the university, sharing equipment while leaving the specimens they currently had in limbo.
“We weren’t protecting the meteorites,” Ruzicka said. “It was less than an optimal situation but it’s what we had to do. Now we have the proper storage and are moving forward.”
Because the Earth is such an oxygen-rich environment, once a meteorite enters the atmosphere it immediately starts to loose valuable characteristics that are vital to its makeup. Ruzicka said this is one of the main reasons why the lab needed to be established. If the compression chambers were not installed, he said, many of the rocks would develop a layer of rust, becoming completely unidentifiable.
A collection of rare and expensive meteorites
The lab is full of expensive meteorites that are actually pieces from surrounding planets, some worth upwards of $42,000. The meteorites are held in a large safe.
“We have some fragments of Mars that broke off when another meteorite collided with it.” Ruzicka said. “Amazingly, those are some of our younger specimens.”
Meteorites have grown in popularity so much that they are bought and sold everyday, whether online or at trade shows.
“People have become such accurate identifiers that now people can calculate how rare or common that particular meteorite is,” Ruzicka said.
Typically, meteorites are bought and sold by the gram and the more rare and delicate can sell for upwards of $6,000 a gram. The meteorite lab on campus has a small sliver of one of the most coveted meteorites in the world, the D’Orbigny, which is worth $42,000.
The D’Orbigny meteorite was discovered in Australia in 1979, and originally was thought to be an ancient artifact, according to www.meteoritesaustralia.com. In 1998, it was suspected to be a meteorite and in 2000 this suspicion was confirmed as the rock was identified as a very rare angrite. What makes this meteorite so rare is that it contains vesicles, a characteristic seen only in one for every one thousand meteorites.
Pugh, Hutson and Ruzicka stress the importance of expanding the general public’s knowledge of what makes a meteor. Pugh acts as the labs outside salesman, traveling the Western states giving seminars and talks on meteorites, general geology and astronomy–from elementary schools to colleges and private clubs.
“We want to take a look at the broader context of what the rocks are telling us and if we can translate that to others then more meteors can be accurately identified,” Ruzicka said.
China, Siberia, South America, Argentina and Peru are just a few of the countries that call the PSU Meteorite Lab three to five times per week asking for advice on whether the rock they discovered is truly a meteorite or not.
While Ruzicka does not mind discussing possible meteorites or fireballs over the phone, most of the calls the lab receives are now referred to their website. Here, they encourage those who may have a possible meteorite to take the interactive meteorite ID exercise.
“We want to educate others about what makes a meteorite, not just give them a yes or no answer,” Ruzicka said. “The more they know the more we can help them.”