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TITLE: From Superstition to Science

Rocks falling from the sky have been reported and revered or feared throughout human history. But only in the nineteenth century did we begin to discover their true nature. Today, the study of meteorites is still a very young science. Called meteoritics, it draws on knowledge from geology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics in the search for greater understanding of the Solar System's birth and evolution.

[Photo: Ensisheim Meteorite]1492
The Ensisheim meteorite falls in France, convincing some scholars that stones do fall from the sky.

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Ernst Chladni, a German naturalist, argues that meteorites are rocks from space.

Italian astronomer Giuseppi Piazzi discovers the first known asteroid and names it Ceres.

British chemist Edward Howard analyzes four stony meteorites and finds that they are similar to one another but different from Earth rocks.

The widely observed fall of the Weston stone in Connecticut sparks a U.S. debate about where such rocks originate.


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Industrialist Daniel Barringer proposes that a giant hole in the Arizona desert—now known as Meteor Crater—formed by impact.

By precisely photographing Pribram’s fall, Czechoslovakian scientists show for the first time that a meteorite probably came from the asteroid belt.

1969 – February
The Allende meteorite falls in Mexico. Studies of this large and rare stone revolutionize scientific thinking about the Solar System's origins.

1969 – February
The Murchison meteorite lands in Australia. Analyses reveal that it contains amino acids and other organic molecules, compounds found in similar meteorites that fell on early Earth. Some scientists speculate that these molecules led to life on our planet.

December – 1969
A Japanese expedition finds the first Antarctic meteorites, launching an era of prolific meteorite discovery.

Louis and Walter Alvarez, an American father-and-son team, find evidence that a gigantic meteorite impact caused massive species extinctions 65 million years ago.


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The first lunar meteorite, Allan Hills 81005, is identified.

The first Martian meteorite is identified.

Scientists purify stardust—the solid dust grains that predate the Solar System—from chondrite meteorites. This grain formed in the atmosphere of a red giant—a star in its final stages of life. The grain has a titanium carbide core and a graphite (carbon) mantle.


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The comet Shoemaker Levy 9 hits Jupiter’s atmosphere and provides a spectacular demonstration of the energy released by enormous impacts.

The NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft lands on the asteroid Eros. The NEAR (Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) mission is the first long-term mission to study an asteroid close up. One of its many goals was to help scientists better understand the nature of meteorite “parent bodies.”


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The Stardust spacecraft will fly through the coma of Comet Wild 2 to collect dust from the comet’s nucleus. It will return to Earth in 2006. Because comets are such ancient objects, scientists hope that the dust will give them more clues about the nature of the early Solar System.

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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Department of Mineral Sciences website Credits