Private tour of the National Meteorite Collection

Posted by David Eicher
on Sunday, April 27, 2014

Geochemist Emma Bullock (left) and geologist Cari Corrigan of the Smithsonian Institution pose with a special cabinet of rare meteorites from the national collection, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, April 25, 2014. // all photos by David J. Eicher
On Friday, April 25, I had a spectacular experience at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Invited by my good friend Paul Pohwat, collections manager of the mineral collection, I visited him for a couple hours and then moved on to spend a couple hours with geochemist Emma Bullock and geologist Cari Corrigan. I want to thank Paul, Emma, and Cari for such amazing hospitality and for giving me a patient, lengthy, behind-the-scenes tour of the greatest collection of meteorites and minerals in the United States, if not in the world. My report on the visit with Paul and an array of spectacular minerals will be coming shortly, and you can be sure that at least a story or two in Astronomy magazine will be coming out of this visit as well. It was an incredible dream to see such treasures and to hear stories of them deep in the walls of this great institution.

First, the meteorites. Emma and Cari graciously described their research interests as they escorted me into “the vault,” an area of high security where the most valuable and rarest specimens of the National Meteorite Collection live. The climate-controlled room holds a head-spinning collection. We held, talked over, and photographed numerous specimens, and I am sharing a sample of them here. I will be publishing more about them in other blogs and in the magazine later.

Here live samples and identification “chips” of the Antarctic meteorites that are recovered near the South Pole and which form a large portion of what we know about meteorites on Earth. Enormous quantities and enormous specimens of very important meteorites also reside here, such as an incredible array of the Allende meteorite, the historic fall in 1969 in Mexico that is perhaps the most studied meteorite in history and that contains a variety of calcium aluminum inclusions, which offer one of the best ways to date the formation of the solar system itself.

The very famous so-called Qarabawi’s Charm, an iron camel’s charm pendant, made entirely of meteoritic material and used by the nomadic Egyptian Ababda tribe to ward off evil, sent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1977, likely originated from the Wabar meteorite, found in 1863 in Saudi Arabia, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, April 25, 2014.
Many important martian and lunar meteorites are in the collection here. We enthused over an amazingly large piece of the Zagami meteorite, the largest of all martian stones, which fell to Earth in 1962 in Nigeria. We also inspected pieces of the Nakhla meteorite, the famous martian meteorite from 1911 that, despite urban legends, did not strike and kill a dog. And we examined one of the most famous meteorites of all, martian stone Allan Hills 84001, which lives in an aluminum and plastic enclosure of its own and which was the focus of a huge controversy in 1996 when scientists claimed to have found microfossils in the meteorite, signifying ancient martian life. The claimed proved to be unfounded; the little, tubelike structures, which we observed in a microscope set up in the lab, were ultimately found to be inorganic in nature.

Historic and unique meteorites abounded. We checked out a big chunk of the Sylacauga meteorite, a stone that fell in Alabama in 1954 and is the only known meteorite to have struck a person, Elizabeth Ann Hodges (1920–1972). We enthused over incredible finds such as a large, very sharp knife made from the Saudi Arabian meteorite Wabar and an amazing and unique artifact — the famous so-called Qarabawi’s Charm, an iron camel’s charm pendant made entirely of meteoritic material and used by the nomadic Egyptian Ababda tribe to ward off evil — sent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1977 that likely originated from the Wabar meteorite, found in 1863 in Saudi Arabia.

We examined small, tubular beads recovered from the ancient Hopewell Indian burial mounds in southern Ohio, which have been identified as composed of metal from the Brenham, Kansas, pallasite!

The list went on and on and on. I share a sampling of images here, with more to come . . .

This is an incredible national treasure, and I again thank Emma, Cari, and Paul for allowing me to share some of the specimens with you!

See the gallery of all the meteorites.

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