Earth Matters Observatory gets ‘the oldest things you can hold in your hand’

July 21, 2018

In 2008, astronomers realized an 80-ton asteroid was due to crash to Earth. They asked other observatories around the world to keep an eye out for it as it passed by.

The second-to-last place where people saw it was the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford on Oct. 7. Fifteen minutes later, it crashed into the Nubian Desert in Sudan. Its rocky remains are now known as the Almahata Sitta meteorite.

And now, the McCarthy Observatory has a fragment of it.

It also has a racket ball-sized meteorite that hit Nandan, China in 1516 and a piece from the historic L’Aigle meteorite that showered that town in France with space rocks in 1803.

In has, in fact, 225 meteorites — some tiny fragments, some large enough to hold in your hand — after purchasing the collection of Don Merchant, a Rockford, New York amateur astronomer who spent 20 years assembling it.

And even when tiny, they’re spectacularly valuable for teaching people about our solar system, our planet, and ourselves.

“It’s not just the physical specimens — each has a story to go along with it,” said Bill Cloutier, one of the leaders of the McCarthy Observatory. “They’re tiny pieces of the history of our solar system.”

That story begins at least 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was taking form. The asteroids are the initial building blocks of Earth.

“They’re the oldest things you can hold in your hand,” said Monty Robson, the observatory’s director.

Stefan Nicholescu, collections manager of mineralogy and meteoritics at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, said that because these asteroids formed the Earth, they also are the basis all life here — trees, birds, animals, humans — springs from. We are stardust. Or chocolate chip cookies.

“Think of chocolate chip cookies,” Nicholescu said. “All the ingredients — the flour, the butter, the sugar, the chocolate chips — are asteroids. When you bake them, they become something else.”

Robson learned from an on-line posting that Merchant was willing to sell his collection. At $6,000, the opportunity was too good the pass up.

“I thought, ‘If you want it, go and get it,’” Robson said.

In June the observatory’s Board of Directors agreed, unanimously approving the purchase.

Merchant — who got bit by the astronomy bug as a teenager when he visited the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York — admitted last week that if he sold the collection bit by bit, he might have made more money. But he did not want to break it up.

“I didn’t want to sell it to some greedy dealer,” he said.

Instead, it will stay intact, with the observatory using it to teach people about the history of our solar system.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” he said of the collection’s move to New Milford. “Knowing it’s there, I haven’t lost a wink of sleep.”

The observatory’s staff hasn’t figured out exactly how they’ll display the pieces — some, protected by plastic cases, are fragile. But Robson said eventually, people will get to see it.

“We’ll need some security,” he said. “But we don’t want it locked away.”

The collection fits in nicely with the observatory’s three areas of concentration: watching near-earth objects like asteroids; observing meteors and fireballs — objects flying though the sky approaching Earth; and meteorites — the rocky pieces that survive the crash.

“It’s a good mission for a modest, near-sea-level observatory,” Robson said.

Robson co-authored a peer-review scholarly paper about the exact landing spots of the famous Weston meteor, which landed into what was then the town Weston on Dec. 14, 1807 — the first time a meteorite was scientifically studied in North America. (Weston and Easton split in 1845. Although the meteorite fragments fell in Easton and Trumbull, Weston still has naming rights.)

The observatory also has two all-sky cameras that film the firmament throughout the night. It hopes to create a network of such cameras at other observatories in Connecticut.

To celebrate all this, the observatory will — weather permitting — hold a skywatching party for the Perseid meteor show.

The party will begin at dusk on Sunday, Aug 12. It will be free, but the observatory may ask for donations to help pay for the 225 meteorites that have so fortuitously fallen into its hands.

“We may pass the cup,” Robson said, “and ask people to donate something every time they seem a meteor.”

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com.

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