Field Museum's New Meteorite

It was a fireball that lit the skies of Nevada last month, traveling fast enough to create sonic booms, landing with a third of the force of an atomic bomb. A meteorite the size of an SUV, it prompted dozens of collectors and scientists to scour the area, looking for just a sliver of the rare rock. Now, a piece of the meteorite is in the Field Museum for study, and it may answer how life formed on Earth.

The Field Museum's collection manager for meteorites and physical geology, Jim Holstein, joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to share the rare find. Visit the image gallery below to see photos of the meteorite fragments.

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The meteorites are made of carbonaceous chondrite, one of the rarer types of meteorites. Over 80,000 tons of rock and space dust fall to Earth each year--most of it dust--according to Holstein, only about a ton is CM. 

"They are considered some of the most primitive [forms of meteorites]—relatively unaltered from the formation of the solar system," he said.

CM, as the name implies, contains carbon, in addition to evidence of water, and amino acids. 

BBC covered the initial hunt for meteorite fragments in Sierra Nevada last month.

While still unproven, the theory is that meteorites like the one now in the Field Museum hit the Earth and introduced those amino acids, which lead to the creation of DNA.

 "At certain periods, the earth was bombarded by these meteorites. The idea is this stuff was seeding the planet with these amino acids and the earth supplied the correct conditions for these amino acids to combine to form proteins," Holstein said. Another way to think about it: "The earth is the oven, baking at the right temperature, for the recipe of life." 

The meteorites also contain what's known as pre-solar grains, remnants of supernova explosions that predate the formation of our solar system. By determining where the grains came from, researchers at the Field Museum can learn more where and when planets formed outside our solar system. 

"We don’t know a lot between the Big Bang and the formation of our solar system," he said. "It's about gap-filling."

The meteorite must be dissolved to get at the pre-solar grains, Holstein says, which can be a tough decision when meteorites can be worth as much as $1,000 an ounce. That's almost 30 times the price of gold.

"We have these objects that are scientifically valuable and also monetarily valuable, so it can be a tough decision," he said. "But destructive analysis is the best way to analyze these."

Luckily, only about a gram needs to be dissolved for study, and the rest will remain on display.

"One-half of a gram can give three graduate students their dissertations," he said.

Only 275 grams of the meteorite have been found so far, Holstein says, and the museum will have 11 of them. 


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