Meteorites & Solar System History
ISIS-230 / EOS-230 / Spring 2013
Perkins, Link Classroom #6
Wednesdays, 10:05 - 12:55
Nicholas Gessler


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Though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December
I promised you I‘d set them to verse so I'd always remember

That the meteoroid is a source of the light
And the meteor's just what we see
And the meteorite is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee

And the meteoroid’s just what causes the light
And the meteor's how it's perceived
And the meteorite’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee

"Corrected" from Joanna Newsom’s, “Emily” (2006)

Join us as we explore the origin and evolution of the universe, galaxies and our solar system via the science of meteoritics.  Every day is punctuated by the roar of fiery meteors, some seen as falling rocks from the sky, some unseen, arriving silently waiting to be found.  Over 50,000 meteorites have been registered to date in the global Meteoritical Bulletin Database. 

Meteorites contain micron-size diamond and graphite dust dating back 6 billion years, significantly before our solar system coalesced 4.57 billion years ago.  These rocks take us half-way back to the origin of the Universe 13.7 billion years and origin of our Galaxy 12.7 billion years ago.  The vast majority of meteorites (chondrites) date from a time before the Earth was formed 4.53 billion years ago.  They contain abundant millimeter-size round dust droplets (chondrules) fused by lightning flashing through the coalescing solar nebula.  Chondrites remain as they were formed, undifferentiated from their original structure.  As chondrites further aggregated forming planetesimals, they melted.  More dense minerals like iron fell to the core.  Lighter minerals floated to the crust.  Fragments of these further differentiated bodies (achondrites) are considerably more scarce.  We will work, hands-on, with a wide variety of chondrites and achondrites including specimens from Mars, the Moon, Vesta and other asteroids.

Required texts (check for discounted copies on

Descartes and Lavoisier both championed the theory that meteorites were a phenomenon of weather, meteorology, and form above the ordinary air in an inflammable stratum.  The science began with Ernst Chladni’s publication, “On the Origin of the Pallas Iron and Others Similar to it, and on Some Associated Natural Phenomena”  in 1794.  As he did in his time, we will retrace the cultural and intellectual history of meteoritics from the early accounts in Europe, such as the 1492 fall of a 280-pound stone at Enshsheim, Alsace, to the present hunts, such as the 2012 hunt for a rare carbonaceous chondrite at Sutter’s Mill in California.  Here, in North Carolina, only 29 meteorites are known, the most recent collected in 1934.  None have been reported for nearly 80 years!  We will unearth the historic records to question why.  We may visit collections in the Raleigh Museum of Natural Sciences, known sites of falls and finds, and/or search new localities in order to raise that inventory.*

We will meet in a large computer and multimedia equipped classroom enabling us to actively do research on the Web and to create a resource for North Carolina meteorite information.  We will also experiment with Web-based and PC-based simulations of the origin of the solar system, the ring structures of planets like Saturn, the shepherding influence of moons on smaller particles, the orbits of comets, asteroids and satellites, the odd orbits of Trojan asteroids which lead and follow those of major planets, and the curious wanderings of meteoroids from their ejection from their parent bodies to their arrival on Earth.  These simulations will allow us to run alternative “what if?” scenarios to explain the past and present and to predict the future.

We will investigate different strategies of finding meteorites in the field, in the Antarctic ice, the dry deserts of the Southwest and Northern Africa and in forested regions.  We will learn how to use technologies such as all-sky cameras, Doppler radar and Google Earth to recapture falls and radar and metal locators to recover finds.  We will follow the personal narratives of successful international “hunters.”

We will actively scrutinize a suite of meteorites as they are found, both fresh and weathered, examining hand specimens by eye and by inspection microscope, looking for evidence of their fiery entry through our atmosphere, their fusion crusts and orientation, and their structure as we might encounter them in the field.  We will look more closely at their thin sections, using both inspection and polarizing microscopes.  We may completely characterize some unclassified meteorites under the microprobe and submit them for publication.* 

* These items are on our active “wish list” and we will try to make them happen, but they may be impractical to implement due to logistical, budgetary and administrative constraints.