Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fallen Stars: Magic, Mysticism and Mayhem

Image Source: Peter Jenniskens (SETI Institute/NASA Ames) via Live Science.

Caption for the above photograph: "On Oct. 6, 2008, Richard Kowalski, at the Catalina Sky Survey, spotted a new asteroid, dubbed 2008 TC3, on a collision course with Earth. For the first time, astronomers around the world tracked the asteroid's approach for the day before it hit Earth. The asteroid exploded upon entering Earth's atmosphere, and as predicted, it fell in the Nubian Desert of Northern Sudan, where 35 pounds (15.9 kilograms) of meteorites were eventually found. Much of its mass is believed to have been vaporized or to have disintegrated when it hit Earth's atmosphere. It was renamed Almahata Sitta, Arabic for "station six," a railroad stop on the line to Khartoum near where the meteorites were found, according to the auction catalog description."

Well before the Space Age, meteorites brought a little piece of heaven - or hell - down to our world. On May 30, we narrowly avoided an extinction event. A 1.7 mile wide binary asteroid, 1998 QE2, which is so large that it has its own moon (see here and here), just passed earth by a whisker: "White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a press briefing about the asteroid: 'scientists have concluded the asteroid 'poses no threat to planet Earth'. He then laughed and said: 'Never really thought I'd be standing up here saying that, but I guess I am.'" 1998 QE2 is considered to be about the same size as the space rock that landed on earth and likely wiped out the dinosaurs.

Meteorites were not officially linked with their celestial origins until 1803. But people have invested these objects with mystical and divine qualities for millennia, evidently because they knew them to have fallen from the skies. Even today, space rocks have that tangible yet unearthly quality that fascinates. In late 2012, the Heritage Auction house attracted attention when they put up 125 space rocks and meteorites for sale, "offering ... rocks from Mars and the moon, silver meteorite slices studded with peridot gems, a slice of the meteorite that killed a cow in Venezuela, the rear tail-light bulb and title to a car punctured by a meteorite, meteorite jewelry." Immediately below, see some of the items which were auctioned (all Heritage Auctions images and cited text are from this page).


Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "Meteorites are pieces of asteroids, the moon and Mars that travel to Earth after being ejected from these heavenly bodies. Exotic origins aside, meteorites can be beautiful, mimicking abstract sculpture for example, and many bring interesting stories when they collide with Earth. On Oct. 14, 2012, more than 125 meteorite specimens and related material go up for auction. Here's a look at few of them. Above, the naturally formed holes on this iron Gibeon meteorite found in Namibia give it an animal-like appearance."


Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "This meteorite, found in China's Gobi Desert, is a pallasite, a class of stony-iron meteorites that contain the mineral olivine. Gem quality olivine, as appears in this meteorite, is called peridot, the August birthstone."


Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "In 1492, this stone fell from the sky outside the walled city of Ensisheim, located in the Alsatian region France. The stone's descent was seen as a sign from God; the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites would not be accepted for another 300 years. The Ensisheim meteorite was brought into the city and chained up in church to keep it Earth-bound."


Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "The majority of meteorites break off from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter; rarer specimens come from the moon or Mars. This one, found in the Sahara Desert, is a lunar meteorite."


Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "In 1803, the L'Aigle meteorite landed in Normandy, France, convincing French scientists that rocks did indeed fall from the sky, and so ushering in widespread acceptance of the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites. This L'Aigle specimen bears an antique parchment label."


Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "This partial slice comes from the Valera meteorite, which killed a cow when it landed in Venezuela in 1972. The cow was subsequently slaughtered and eaten, and the meteorite was used as a doorstop. This is the only meteorite known to have been responsible for a fatality."

Below the jump, see some of the world's most famous and mystical meteorites, objects which unite human celestial fascination of the ancient world with that of the future. The most interesting is perhaps a mysterious meteorite carved into a Buddhist figure in the Middle Ages, which the Nazis stole from Tibet during World War II.
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