[meteorite-list] Russian Scientist Sifts Through Meteorites and Bricks
Ron Baalke baalke at zagami.jpl.nasa.gov
Wed Jun 13 17:46:32 EDT 2007
Wed Jun 13 17:46:32 EDT 2007
Scientist Sifts Through Meteorites and Bricks
By Kevin O'Flynn
The Moscow Times
June 14, 2007
"A gigantic dragon fell down from the sky, terrifying all the people. In
that moment the Earth shook and many people heard the noise."
With these words, an extraterrestrial object made its dramatic entry
into Russian history. The account appeared in the "Lavrenty Chronicle"
of 1091, describing a hunting trip by Prince Vsevolod near Kiev where he
witnessed the apparent fall of a meteorite.
Close to 1,000 years later, samples of what may be that meteorite can be
found in the Russian Academy of Sciences' meteorite collection, one of
the world's oldest collections of meteorites.
Once stored in the institute's nuclear bomb shelter, the meteorites are
now in a new room in the meteorite laboratory. Mikhail Nazarov, a jolly
grandfather of 58 and head of the laboratory, walked between two rows of
rocks on a recent afternoon, explaining where and when they crash-landed
Every year, the meteorite laboratory, housed in the Vernadsky Institute
of Geochemistry on Ulitsa Kosygina, receives hundreds of possible
meteorite samples found by ordinary people around the country. If they
are lucky, one real meteorite will be among them.
Pulling a box from the windowsill in his office, Nazarov revealed the
latest sample sent in by a meteorite-searching hopeful.
"In most cases, it is enough to look at it," said Nazarov, dismissing
instantly a sample from the box.
One man recently sent in a brick. "He thought it had fallen from the
sky," Nazarov said, despairingly.
Earlier that day, a lab employee had received a delivery of 5 kilograms
of granite, he added, without much hope that the granite was not of this
The search has never been easy, said Nazarov, but the prize is worth the
sifting, because meteorites allow scientists to examine life beyond
Earth without ever having to leave the lab. Studying meteorites means
looking back in time before Earth and the solar system existed.
"Ten percent of our understanding of the cosmos comes from the space
program," Nazarov said. "The rest is from meteorites."
The pride of the laboratory -- a blackened lump that looks like it was
broken off the top of a missile cone -- is kept in a small room on the
second floor in the Museum of Extraterrestrial Objects. The lump is
beloved because it matches the public perception of what a meteorite
should look like.
The meteorite laboratory traces its history back to 1749, when a
700-kilogram piece of iron rock was found near Krasnoyarsk and donated
to the Russian Academy of Sciences. It took more than half a century
before scientists realized it was from outer space. Today, the world's
only monument to a meteorite stands near the spot where it was found.
Even before then, there were plenty of tales of rocks hurtling through
the air toward Russia. Meteorites were discovered in the tombs of the
Scythians, nomadic warriors who roamed Russia more than 2,000 years ago.
Anna Skripnik, who has worked at the institute since she graduated
almost 40 years ago, explained that the discovery of a rock with large
quantities of iron "was a kick-start for civilization," giving people
access to iron before mining was possible. Swords have been discovered
in Egypt made from nonterrestrial metal.
One of the most famous meteorite showers in Russia occurred in Veliky
Ustyug in 1290. It is depicted in a famous 17th-century icon showing St.
Prokopy saving the town from destruction with his prayers.
Meteorites were seen as a warning for the people to mend their ways.
Chapels were often opened at the sites of meteorite falls, and the
meteorites were incorporated into the walls of monasteries.
In 1860, the Orthodox church's synod gave permission to make a
pilgrimage to "where in 1290, as told by ancient tales, a cloud of
stones fell." A still-worn path to an abandoned chapel at the site shows
that people today make the pilgrimage.
What to do if you find a possible meteorite
o Chisel off a 10-gram to 15-gram sample.
o On a piece of paper, write the date and location of the find; the weight
of the sample; any peculiarities such as magnetism or the presence of metal;
and a detailed description of how you came upon the sample.
For example, "I saw a fiery light in the sky, heard a loud noise and
found an unusual stone" or
"I found a heavy magnetic rock in a field while plowing."
o Take a photograph of the sample.
o Put the three items in a box and mail them to
the meteorite laboratory at Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry, 19
Ulitsa Kosygina, Moscow 119991.
On show at the museum is part of a meteorite that fell on the eve of the
Battle of Borodino on Sept. 5, 1812, which the Russian side interpreted
as a sign from the heavens that Napoleon's army would be defeated, which
The biggest and most mysterious cosmic attack on Russia took place in
1908 when an object -- scientists still dispute whether it was a
meteorite or a comet -- exploded above the ground near the Tunguska
River in the Krasnoyarsk region. The explosion was 1,000 times more
powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the sound of the
explosion was supposedly heard in London. No meteorite finds have been
made at Tunguska, and Nazarov said he was inclined to support the comet
The last big fall was the Sikhote-Alin meteorite, which landed in the
Primorye region on Feb. 12, 1947. More than 20 tons have been uncovered,
only a small percentage of what is supposed to have landed in the area.
A painting of the meteorite's fireball hangs in the Moscow museum.
Even though Russia's vast size increases its chances of being hit by any
interplanetary object, finding the object once it lands has always been
"Most of the territory is taiga and bog, where it is difficult to
collect," Nazarov said.
In the 250 years since Russia's first meteorite was identified, only 124
others have been discovered, roughly one every two years. In all, the
collection contains 1,230 meteorite samples from all over the world, as
well as a few hundred grams of moon dust that was dug up and brought
back to the Soviet Union by three unmanned space vehicles in the 1970s.
The difficulty of finding the rocks inspired an appeal to people to find
and send in meteorite samples. In 1898, the tsarist government declared
that any meteorite found on Russian territory was government property
and offered a reward to anyone who found and turned over such an object.
The Soviet government continued with the practice.
"People of all kinds have contributed meteorites, from rich, educated
bourgeois and nobles to ordinary peasants and Siberian nomads," Nazarov
and Marina Ivanova wrote in a paper published last year on the history
of the meteorite collection.
After one of the biggest meteorite showers fell near Volgograd in 1922,
the government offered a 100 ruble reward -- then a magnificent sum --
to find the meteorite. "Pioneers ran around, and pensioners ran around,
but they didn't find anything," Skripnik said. Fragments were found
Many meteorites ended up in the laboratory when people had sudden
moments of clarity years after being around the rocks. One meteorite was
recovered after years of being used as a weight on top of a barrel of
pickled vegetables. Another was discovered after the son of a farmer who
had struck it with his plow 30 years earlier read a scientific journal
and realized what it was. The meteorite was still in the same spot in
the field where it had been when it damaged the plow.
The Soviet heyday was in the 1940s and '50s, when an annual meteorite
conference was held and people read the magazine Meteoritika. But the
collection suffered as other countries made huge discoveries, mainly in
Antarctica and Africa.
Russia has the second-biggest collection in the world, after the United
States, of meteorites discovered on its own territory.
Nazarov and previous Soviet meteorite scientists see a direct link
between the country's social, cultural and economic well-being and the
growth of meteorites in its collection. Nazarov's paper contains a graph
that shows how the number of objects sent in as possible meteorites
level off during times of crisis.
"You see when something happens, like civil war, it has an effect on the
number of meteorites in the collection," Nazarov said.
"Now there is something of a revival, you can feel it," he said. But
pointing to the 1990s, he added, "It looks like civil war."
The 1990s were a terrible period for Russian science, and the meteorite
collection and staff struggled. Even now, Nazarov is paid only 12,000
rubles ($460) per month, and he talks sadly of how difficult it is to
attract younger scientists to a junior salary of 3,000 rubles.
Today, the laboratory's helpers are more interested in profit than a
desire to push the boundaries of science. With a burgeoning market in
meteorites, where samples are usually split into small lots and sold,
the institute authenticates the genuineness of an object and in return
takes a small sample -- 20 grams or 20 percent of the total find.
"It is a compromise, of course. Science wants more than 20 grams,"
Nazarov said. "But it is a compromise that is productive, and a lot of
meteorites have been found by meteorite hunters."
The laboratory often carries out numerous tests to check whether an
object is really a meteorite. One sample found at the bottom of a river
near a meteorite fall seemed to fit the parameters of a meteorite until
further examination over the course of a year revealed that it was the
result of industrial pollution.
Last month, Vadim Chernobrov, a meteorite hunter, said an expedition had
found four fragments in the Altai region that "visually and under a
microscope passed tests for meteorite suitability," Interfax reported.
"I don't think he even knows what a meteorite looks like," Nazarov said,
noting that the subsequent tests showed the fragments were not
meteorites. He said Chernobrov once claimed to have found a bolt from a
Sometimes when meteorite seekers hear the lab's negative verdict, they
"get offended and complain," he said.
Still, Nazarov knows the laboratory, with little funds for its own
expeditions, would not have a collection without them and that it needs
them to keep searching for the meteorites still unfound throughout Russia.