Thursday, November 12, 2009

Meteorite Day

Did a little math show for the morning assembly at ThIS to generate some excitement for our upcoming family math night. I told a circus story involving moebius strips that was pretty cool. Then I had to run run run to the university to catch up with Peter's 4th grade class. We were at the university today for a geology trip to meet my friend Allan, geologist. Their teacher promised me a big surprise. I would not be disappointed.

A parent of one of the kids in the class had a suspected meteorite their family had found in a swamp in the 1980s. They finally decided to get it analyzed, and decided to turn it into a class project. What fun!

At the university, Allan started by letting the kids play with all kind of rocks, including a genuine meteorite from Norway. There have been only 14 meteorites discovered in Norway so they are quite rare here. Most meteorites are found on glaciers, where not only is it easy to spot them on the ice, but they are most definitely recognized as being out of place. 13 of these meteorites live in Oslo in a museum, the 14th is here in Trondheim, and the kids and myself all got to handle it. It really just feels like a burnt heavy rock, but it's strange to wonder where it came from... another part of the solar system, from deep space, from another planet...?

After we learned about how the solar system formed and what kind of materials planets are made of, we went to a huge workshop to investigate our suspected 15th meteorite. Meteorites are usually black and burnt on the outside, somewhat magnetic, heavy (three times denser than water), and contain chondrules or little spheres within their structure. This stone was not burnt on the outside, but well-corroded from years and years of sitting in an acidic swamp. It is the right density, and slightly magnetic. It was also found somewhere where it was out-of-place, so these are all good indicators that it might be a meteorite.

In the workshop, a university student operated a special coring machine to cut out a cylinder of stone from the rock. I realized that if this were a movie, the rock would split open and an alien baby would come out and probably kill us all in an exciting way, but this didn't happen. Instead, we got a core, which Allan peered at with a magnifying lens. Could he see the tell-tale chondrules or not?

The interior of the stone was very black, and Allan couldn't see chondrules clearly. Maybe... maybe not... too hard to tell! Our next stop was the thin-slicing lab, where the stone can be sliced, mounted on a slide, and then polished to a thickness of a few microns so it can be put on a microscope. Parts of the core would also be sent to another lab for chemical analysis. Unfortunately we will have to wait one week for results.

I was cleaning up a table the possible meteorite was on, and because the surface of the stone was so corroded, the table was covered with rock crumbs. I swept them up to throw away, but it seemed like a shame to throw out meteorite dust, so instead I put the dust in my shoes. I've been walking around on meteorites! Cool.

If the stone turns out to be a meteorite, the class will write a paper on it and send it into the news. We should know next week... stay tuned!

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