UCLA Meteorite Museum displays extensive collection to the public for the first time

Posted on May 16, 2013 in News

Nearly 50,000 years ago, an asteroid fragment slammed into Earth approximately forty miles east of what is now Flagstaff, Arizona.  Upon impact, the celestial projectile shattered into thousands of pieces and created a mile-wide hole now known as Meteor Crater.  A 357-pound chunk of that original asteroid now stands center stage in the new UCLA Meteorite Museum.

The Canyon Diablo meteorite was donated to UCLA by philanthropist William Andrews Clark, Jr. upon his death in 1934, becoming one of the first specimens entered into the UCLA Meteorite Collection.  While originating from sporadic donations and purchases, it has been Professor John Wasson and researcher Alan Rubin who have spent decades building the collection to its 1500-specimen count today.  Together, they have made the collection one of the most extensive in the world, but only recently have these unique bits of our solar system’s history been on display for visitors to admire.  “For many years, we’ve collected beautiful exhibit specimens, but kept them locked in an inaccessible cabinet,” Rubin said.  “It’s nice to put them on display for other people to see.”

Those expecting the museum to be filled with rows of indistinguishable black rocks may be surprised to learn that there are many types of meteorites, ranging from metallic to stony and everything in between.  More than one exhibit emphasizes chondrites, a type of meteorite that is a subject of “endless fascination,” according to Rubin.  “Chondrites are composed of thousands or millions of tiny spherules, called chondrules.”  While each chondrule tells a different story, they are still very much a mystery. “It appears that chondrules formed from clumps of dust in the solar nebula, the gas and dust cloud that was here before the planets and asteroids formed, and were zapped in a way that is still unknown,” Wasson said.

Not all the exhibits display rocks of extraterrestrial origin, however.  One exhibit showcases a collection of melted tektites and Libyan desert glass that formed as a result of meteor impacts. Another exhibit offers tips on how to correctly identify meteorites.  Rubin, a world expert in meteorite identification, receives phone calls nearly every day from meteorite-hunting hopefuls. While real specimens occasionally come across his desk, the vast majority of these objects come from Earth.  The exhibit, entitled “Meteorwrongs,” features some of the more interesting Earthly samples Rubin has accumulated over the years.

Wasson and Rubin hope that the museum will help educate the next-generation of meteorite researchers.  “The museum will be a wonderful teaching resource,” Wasson said.  “Our goal is to make it the world’s best scientifically-oriented meteorite museum.”  Open to the public weekdays from 9am – 4pm, the museum is located in Geology 3697.  Admission is free.  The museum, still incomplete, will have mounted informational tablets in its final configuration.

The UCLA Meteorite Museum is supported by the Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the Institute for Planets and Exoplanets.  Those interested in providing financial support to the UCLA Meteorite Collection should visit http://giving.ucla.edu/meteorites/.

Watch a video profile of Alan Rubin here.  Watch a video tour of the meteorite museum here.