By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A museum in Maine is offering $25,000 for a piece of meteorite that struck St. Louis, FOX2Now reported. The object was observed mid-flight and thought to have come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The museum’s reward shows our fascination with space and its astronomical objects.
According to the FOX2Now article, the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum announced that the cash reward of $25,000 would be given to the first person who brought in a piece of the meteorite, weighing at least one kilogram, which is just over two pounds. The article goes on to say that the museum was so quick to express interest in the meteorite because its grand opening is December 12, one month to the day after the meteorite reached Earth from outer space. While residents of St. Louis and surrounding areas search the great outdoors for pieces of the space rock, the interest in the celestial object serves as another reminder of humanity’s unending love for astronomical objects from outer space.
There are so many types of objects in outer space—whether natural or man-made—that the appropriate terminology for them can seem daunting. After all, humanity looked to the night sky long before we had invented complex verbal language or had discovered what the objects were. Comets may be the best example of this sort of astronomical confusion-turned-definition.
“Comets appear as diffuse luminous patches in the sky, often with long tails,” said Dr. Alex Filippenko, Professor of Astronomy and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. “A comet is basically a dirty snowball or an icy dirt ball—a ball of rock, dust, and ice that comes in from the deep freeze of the outer Solar System. The ice consists of frozen water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, and other molecules that evaporate away as the comet approaches the Sun, because the comet gets heated.”
The long tail that characterizes most comets is composed of this dirt and ice that breaks away from the comet and is then left behind. Dr. Filippenko was quick to point out that the idea of the comet’s tail “burning” is a misconception. Its fiery appearance owes to sunlight reflecting off the scattering pieces; it’s not the only misconception we’ve made with comets.
“The tail of the comet kind of looks like long hair and this led to the name comet, which comes from the Greek for ‘long-haired star,’ Aster cometes,” Dr. Filippenko said.
Meteors and Meteorites
Meteors are often called “falling stars” or “shooting stars,” but they have little or nothing to do with stars.
“Meteors are actually small pebbles or chunks of ice from the asteroid belt or comet debris,” Dr. Filippenko said. “When they are wandering through the Solar System, they are called meteoroids. When meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere at a height of around 60 or 70 miles, roughly the top part of the mesosphere, they compress the air and heat it a lot, causing it to glow brightly.”
In order to understand meteor showers, it can be easier to think of things the other way around, with the Earth rising to meet them.
“What’s happening during a meteor shower is that Earth is passing through the orbit of an old disintegrated comet or a younger comet that is shedding lots of rocks and ice clumps,” Dr. Filippenko said. “A given shower always happens at about the same time of year, because Earth crosses the orbit of a disintegrating comet at about the same time each year.”
With a better understanding of what we see drifting through the night sky, we can more fully appreciate all the cosmos has to offer—even if it doesn’t net us $25,000.
Dr. Alex Filippenko contributed to this article. Dr. Filippenko is Professor of Astronomy and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his B.A. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the California Institute of Technology.