Montana Earth Science Picture of the Week

Catch a falling star!

One of the most unique Earth Science related businesses in the country is the Montana Meteorite Laboratory located in the shop of Marlin Cilz in Malta. Marlin, who used to own one of the largest personal collections of meteorites in the world, established the part-time business that specializes in cutting and preparing meteorites for display. Although the surfaces of meteorites can be interesting, what's inside can be quite spectacular. So, finders and collectors from as far away as South Africa send their meteorites to the Montana Meteorite Laboratory where Marlin uses special saws and other equipment to slice and etch the specimens, revealing their beautiful interior.

Meteorite or "meteorwrong"?
The piece that Marlin is holding in the photo is from a 38 lb. iron meteorite that was brought to him by a family from Roundup, Montana. The family had been using the unusually heavy "rock" as a doorstop for a building on their ranch for several years before they found out about Marlin. He confirmed that it was a meteorite. A closer view of a similar meteorite (below) shows the unusual pattern of iron and nickel crystals that Marlin brings out by etching the freshly cut surface with a strong acid.

Meteoroids, meteors, meterorites
Meteorites are simply pieces of rock and/or metal from space that have reached the Earth's surface. When they are out in space they are referred to as a "meteoroids". When meteoroids get close to the Earth, or vice versa, our planet's gravity pulls them in. Then as they are traveling through our atmosphere at anywhere from 8 to 44 miles per second, the friction causes tremendous heating, and the rock begins to burn up. Most of these "shooting stars", believed to be about the size of a grain of sand, vaporize before hitting the Earth. But occasionally larger ones make it through. The largest one ever found in the U.S.A. was a 15.5 ton iron meteorite discovered near Willamette, Oregon in 1902. It now sits in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Annual meteor showers
On dark, clear moonless nights, you should be able to 3 to 4 meteors per hour. But there are certain nights each year that Earth experiences "meteor showers", causing the number of meteor sightings to rise significantly. One of the best showers happens from August 9th to 13th when Earth's orbit crosses the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. As Swift-Tuttle approaches the Sun (once every 130 years) some of the ice evaporates, leaving behind a trail of rocks that were embedded in the comet. Then as Earth passes through this debris every August, we experience the showers.

Everything you ever wanted to know
It just so happens that the best book for the amateur who wants to learn more about meteorites also has a Montana connection. Rocks From Space by O. Richard Norton, is published by Mountain Press Publishing of Missoula, Montana. The book includes a photo of Marlin holding the famous Peekskill Meteorite that hit a car in Peekskill, New York on October 9, 1992. Before crashing into the car, the meteor was caught on video by several people back east who were recording high school football games when the burning stone streaked across the sky. Marlin and two other collectors combined to purchase the stony meteorite. In addition to Rocks from Space, another great source of information is the Meteorite Market web site. Their question and answer page can be accessed by clicking on the Hot Link below.

NOTE: If you pass through Malta, stop in at the Phillips County Museum to check out some of Marlin's meteorites as well as a complete fossil of a duck-billed dinosaur.

Terms: asteroid, comet


*Meteorite Market: questions and answers
*Montana Meteorite Laboratory
*How to collect micrometeorites
Past pictures of the week
Books related to Montana Earth Science
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By Rod Benson
Earth Science Teacher at Helena High School

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