COVER

‘Holding a falling star'

WARREN CARAGATA July 18 1994
COVER

‘Holding a falling star'

WARREN CARAGATA July 18 1994

‘Holding a falling star'

The item will show up next year, buried somewhere in the fine print of the government accounts, down the alphabetic list from frigates, just ahead of prisons. Meteorite: $10,000. The federal government bought it from Stéphane Forcier, shortly after it plunged from the heavens into a cow pasture on his family’s farm in St. Robert, Que., on June 14. “I saw a ball of smoke,” said Vital Lemay, who watched the meteorite land in his neighbor’s field. “Then, I heard something like a falling whistle.” Now in the possession of the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, the meteorite weighs five pounds, is shaped like a pointy grapefruit, and is covered by a black, pockmarked skin of mineralized glass. It was bought in the name of science, and it holds clues to the origin of planets and the nature of the Earth’s core. But even for scientists who can describe it in mind-numbing terms of technical precision, the lump of rock also holds mystery. ‘To be holding a falling star in your hand,” says Gina LeCheminant, head of the Geological Survey’s mineralogy and chemistry section, “it’s so unique.”

There is plenty of space debris floating around the solar system: asteroids and comets like the one about to strike Jupiter.

Meteorites are fragments of that debris that come crashing to Earth.

The one now being examined in Ottawa is called an H5 Chondrite, meaning that it is made of stone, as opposed to ones that are more metallic. And it is up of minerals that also exist on Earth. It contains olivine and pyroxene, for example, silicates of magnesium and iron that are formed deep within the Earth.

The meteorite is also studded with pure iron, which makes it strongly magnetic. On Earth, so-called native iron is rare because it mixes readily with oxygen or other elements to form iron ores.

Canada gets its share of space rock, with up to 40 meteorite landings each year. But most fall in uninhabited areas and few are ever recovered. The last one that ended up in federal government hands came down in 1977—making the latest find all the more interesting to scientists. Collectors usually pay only about $50 an ounce for

meteorites. But the one .....................................................................................................

that landed in Forcier’s field fetched more than double that amount because it was fresh, falling into government hands just a few days after it crashed. Fresh meteorites are prized because they may still contain short-lived isotopes that could provide further clues to their origins. But then, any meteorites, when scientists get their hands on them, are prized for what they can reveal about deep space. “We all think, Wow,’ ” said LeCheminant. “That’s what drives scientific curiosity.”

WARREN CARAGATA in Ottawa