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by Lyubov RUSEVA, journalist

According to current assessments, an annual average of up to 1.5 thousand of interplanetary rock and dust particles enter and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Many experts believe that the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic perished from a collision of the Earth with a major space object. And that means that the problem of the asteroid menace is more than a mere freak of imagination. This underlines the importance of consistent studies of these "guests from space". In our country these studies are conducted by the Meteoritics Lab of the RAS Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry named after Vernadsky under the guidance of Prof. M. Nazarov, Dr. Sc. (Geol. and Mineral.), who describes their studies.

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The material base for these studies in this country is the Meteorite Collection of RAS- one of the oldest and biggest such collections in the world. Today it contains more than 1,000 meteorites (some 23,000 samples of practically all types, amassed from 45 countries, with a total weight of over 30 tons). And there are also samples of tektites and impactites (rocks from terrestrial impact craters). Many of these "treasures" are on display at our Museum of Extraterrestrial Matter.

Sights and events observed up there in heaven have been the object of human attention and curiosity since time immemorial. Comets and meteors have always been the cause of superstitious fears. As for meteors, they were the objects of veneration by Greeks, and the central holy shrine in the Apollo Temple in Delphi, we know, was a huge piece of "heavenly rock". Thousands of worshippers streamed into the Artemis Temple in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, which contained a huge conical meteorite. It was used as the material for the image of Venus on Cyprus.

In 205, the Carthaginian army of Hannibal invaded the Roman Empire. An intense meteorite shower which occurred at that time scared the priests who declared that the foes can only be beaten back with the help of the "Mother of Gods"-a huge cone- shaped meteorite which was kept in the Pessinus Castle (now Central Turkey). The relic was brought to Rome and this must have provided the necessary moral support for the soldiers who were really able to free Italy from the Hannibal army within a short time. As a token of gratitude to the divine "intercessor" it was placed into a new temple built on the Palace Mount where it remained as an object of veneration for the next 500 years. Later on it was forgotten and all of its traces were lost after 1730.

On November 16,1492, the residents of the town of Ensisheim in Elsace (now France) watched the fall of a huge rock from heaven. On his arrival on the scene, Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire exclaimed: "And may this stone help us triumph over our foes!" He ordered the relic to be secured by chains so that "it won't fly back and away into heaven". An inscription carved upon the rock later said: "Many know about this rock, each of them this or that, but no one really knows enough."

The most widely known object of veneration of this kind is the Black Stone of Kaaba in the Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca. According to legends, the sacred rock from heaven was originally of hyacinth color, but later turned reddish-black "because of human sins". It is commonly believed to be a meteorite, although it is not an iron, or stone body, and does not sink in water. In 1980 American researcher Professor E. Thomsen suggested that the rock consists of molten sand in a vitreous form, mixed with cosmic matter as a result of a powerful meteoritic impact in the W>ar crater (100 km east of Mecca).

Traditionally, worshippers held special veneration for meteoric iron-a gift from Heaven. The Khettes and the Sumerians called it "fire from heaven", the Egyptians- "strike of the heavenly lightning" and the Assyrians-"heavenly metal".

In 1818, European researchers exploring the north-western region of Greenland came across the tribe of Inouites who used meteoric iron for the making of knives, harpoons and carving tools. Five successive research expeditions (from 1818 to the late 1890s) were vainly trying to discover the "Iron Mount" and it was only in 1894 that a native guide brought the head of the last party, Prof. Robert Piary, to the Isle of Savigsivik not far from Cape York. It was the "hiding place" of a "heavenly visitor" with a mass of 62.5 tons and it consisted of three segments: a "tent"

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(59 tons), a "woman" (about 3 tons) and a "dog" (0.4 tons). It took members of the party three years to ship their find to the United States where it was sold for 40,000 dollars to the American Museum of Natural History.

At different times meteorites were worshipped on a par with deities. Some are found to this day in native burials at Hopewell Mound (USA). In 1808 researchers discovered a "heavenly visitor" of 742 kg (worshipped by Pauni Indians) near the Red River in the center of Texas. Another one, of more than 1.5 tons and wrapped up in coarse cloth, rested in an ancient temple in Casa-Grande (Mexico). In 1853 the Uanica tribe began worshipping a meteorite which fell in East Africa not far from Zanzibar. On December 2, 1880, a 3 kg meteorite landed at the feet of two Brahmine priests near Andra (India). The priests immediately declared themselves "ministers" of the miraculous deity, and they welcomed as many as 10,000 pilgrims a day. On August 14, 1992, scores of rocks hit the town of Mbala in Uganda. The locals believed the heavenly debris could help cure various ailments and ground them into medicinal powder.

Records of falling bolides, or fireballs, are also found in our chronicles with the first such entry in the Lavrentyevskaya Chronicle (1377) referring to such an event of 1091. This record can be regarded as the starting point of our national meteoritics. Experts believe that the chronicle entry refers to a major "Bragin" pallasite * which was found in 1807 by peasants of the Kaporenki village of the Gomel Region (Belorus). Today some of its yellow-green crystals, lined with metal, can be seen in our collection.

Of interest to researchers are chronicle records of the fall of "heavenly wanderers" in Veliky Ustyug (1290), in the north of Vologodchina, in Novgorod the Great (1212 and 1421) and near the village of Noviye Ergi (1662). The Nikonovskaya Chronicle (1539 - 1542), for example, offers the following description of the fall of the meteorite: "That was a truly frightening sign (summer of 6929, i.e. 1421). During that spring on the 19th day of May, the Feast of All Saints, in Novgorod the Great near midnight there occurred a frightening event. The sky was covered by dark clouds, with thunder and flashing lightnings, so that one could see nothing around himself and even wishing to be burned down by these flames. And the clouds stopped over the city and, instead of rain, they turned into a hail of fire... And there was pouring rain and hail, and stones were dropping down onto the ground..."

It may be interesting to compare the above description with a report by Captain Otto Kotsebu from board his sloop Predpriyatiye. In 1825 the ship cast anchor in the roads off the Hawaii, and on September 27 members of the Russian round-the- world expedition witnessed a remarkable natural phenomenon. "In an absolutely clear sky over the island there formed a dense dark cloud... Its darkest section hung over the village of Ganaruro. The absolute calm was suddenly bloken up by a stormy wind from the north-east. It was accompanied by peals of thunder which sounded like enemy warships exchanging gunfire. The peals of thunder ceased few minutes later when the village was struck by two rocks which broke up into pieces upon the impact. The residents picked them up when they were still very warm." Members of the Russian expedition managed to obtain several such pieces and take them on board. One such sample is now on display at our museum.

The Museum of Local Lore in the town of Veliky Ustyug contains an icon of St. Prokopiy the Righteous dating back to 1669. The saint saved the city residents from being wiped out by a hail of stones on June 25, 1290. "At noon a dark cloud appeared all of a sudden over the town of Ustyug and it became dark as the night... And there appeared from all the four sides huge clouds, with lightnings flashing ceaselessly from them all, with constant deafening peals of terrible thunder so that people could not hear one another talking..."


* Pallasite-type of iron and stone meteorite discovered by Acad. P. Pallas. - Ed.

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The awe-struck residents marked the spot of the calamity with a wooden chapel which was later replaced with a stone church with one of the black fragments laid into its foundation.

And it may be interesting to note that back in the 19th century this kind of natural phenomena were received with skepticism. The "Weston" meteorite shower which occurred on December 14,1807, was described by Prof. B. Silliman and Prof. Kingsley. This document caught the eye of one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution-President Thomas Jefferson- who remarked with skepticism that one would rather think that the Yankee-professors were lying than believe that rocks could rain down from the sky.

Until 1803 meteor showers were ridiculed in France as superstitions. Scientists admitted their reality only after one such dramatic event in the country's north. At the request of the Minister of the Interior the site and the circumstances of the natural calamity were investigated by the physicist and astronomer, a Foreign Honorary Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Jean Biot (1774 - 1862). In his report he pointed out that he wanted to take the position of an outside observer, unbiased in his opinion, and try and present the facts, no matter what they could be, without suggesting any hypotheses. He said he hoped he had proved the completely obvious nature of that most unusual phenomenon ever seen by people... He said it would take great scientific achievements in order to investigate in due course this phenomenon for which we have no satisfactory explanation...

The foundation of our unique academic collection was laid in 1749 when a retired kosak soldier, Ya. Medvedev, found near Krasnoyarsk a lump of iron of about 700 kg (later called the Pallas iron). He wrote to Acad. P. Pallas: "The special ductility and whiteness of this iron and its resonant ring led one to the conclusion that this metal could have been nobler than iron. And the Tatars, who regard this block of metal as an object of worship fallen from heaven, have strengthened me in this opinion..."

One of the servants of naturalist P. Pallas (1741 - 1811), private Yakub, was sent on some business to Abakan. Rumors of the find prompted the soldier to cut off a piece of the metal and place it before the scientist. After an analysis, Prof. Pallas sent the chunk to St. Petersburg where he later made its description. The spot of the meteoritic impact was many years later marked by the world's only monument to an event of this kind.

It is interesting to note that Member of the St. Petersburg Academy Jacob Schtelin, in an article on the latest scientific discoveries in Russia, which he sent to the London Royal Society in 1774, mentioned but two finds of native iron: on the Aleutian Islands and in Siberia.

The problem of origin of the Pallasian fragment produced heated debates which were accentuated by the publication in 1794 of a book by German physicist and Foreign Member of the St. Pe-

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tersburg Academy, Ernst Khladni On the Origin of Masses of Iron Found by Pallas and Similar Ones and on Some Natural Phenomena Involved. In this work, which marked the beginning of meteoritics, the author pioneered the idea of a cosmic origin of the metal chunk and other "air" rocks (aerolites).

At first the reasoning of Acad. Khladni found no support, but shortly after it was accepted by the scientific community. It turned out that the extraterrestrial matter, earlier visible only through a telescope, could now be studied by laboratory methods. On the other hand, the St. Petersburg Academy showed no enthusiasm about the gathering of meteorites and in 1811 its collection included only 7 and in 1846-only 19 such samples.

The break occurred following the publication in 1868 of a book by the treasurer of the Academic Mineralo-gical Study, chemist Prof. Gebel, On the Aerolites in Russia. The author unconditionally accepted the Khladni concept and formulated for the first time the basic collection strategy of meteorites. His ideas were put into practice by mining engineer Yu. Simashko who introduced into scientific usage the term "meteoritics". He vigorously looked for "heavenly guests" all over the country and bought and exchanged them from Astern collectors. On the brink of the 19th-20th centuries his collection was bigger than the academic one, having about 400 items. After Dr. Simashko's death, his widow sold the collection with only its fraction remaining in Russia.

By the end of the 19th century the St. Petersburg Academy and other scientific and federal institutions began to show interest in meteorites, with collections being started in Odessa, Kiev, Kharkov and Tartu. Some of the samples were brought to the Moscow University and a unique collection was amassed at the Forestry Institute (now-Moscow Agricultural Academy named after K. Tlmiryazev).

Under a law adopted in Russia in 1898 meteorites were proclaimed federal property and finds of this kind were to be rewarded with a prize awarded by the St. Petersburg Academy. And it should be noted that no such law was adopted in the Soviet years although prize awards were issued on a regular basis.

The main ideologist and organizer of scientific studies of "guests from space" in the Soviet years was Acad. V. Vernadsky (up until the 1940s). He believed that meteorites were objects of galactic origin, which was indicated by their orbit assessments. And that means that by investigating these heavenly bodies one can unravel the depth of the Universe. The academician fully accepted the ideas of Prof. Gebel about public collection of samples. He wrote that "it is in this particular field of knowledge that we have to rely upon the broadest sections of the population. The number of preserved meteorites is directly proportional to the cultural level of the population and its efforts for their preservation."

On the initiative of Acad. Vernadsky a Committee on Meteorites was established in 1939. Vernadsky's ideas were translated into reality by Prof. L. Kulik whose name became widely known in connection with the first (in 1927 - 1930 and 1938 - 1939) expeditions to the area of the fall of the Tunguska meteorite * . He set up a network of volunteer observers-correspondents, travelled to the sites of falls and discoveries of meteorites, bought and exchanged samples with private individuals and museums. The scientist enriched the existing collection thus paving the way for the development of fundamental studies of cosmic matter in our country.

After the death of Acad. Vernadsky, the Committee on Meteorites was headed by Acad. V Fesenkov - one of the leading figures in the Soviet school of astronomical research. Its Scientific Secretary became Prof. E. Krinov who continued the gathering of samples of Prof. Kulik using the same methods of active involvement of the public.


* See: A. Olkhovatov, "The Tunguska Event: Anything New?", Science in Russia, No. 3, 1998. -Ed.

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The fall of the giant Sikhote-Alin meteorite on February 12, 1947 added remarkable samples to our collection and stimulated a tide of public interest towards meteorites. Studies were also stepped up in the field of extra-terrestrial matter. This field of research was supported by Acad. A. Vinogradov - the first Director of the Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry (named after V.I. Vernadsky) of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Started under his direction were comprehensive studies of the chemical composition of the visitors from space, of their age and radiation history. Today the Institute maintains active cooperation with the Committee on Meteorites and many studies are conducted jointly. The fundamental aspects of meteorite formation are studied at the Joint Institute of Physics of the Earth named after O. Schmidt of the Russian Academy (cosmogony), the RAS Institute of Geology and Geochronology of the Precambrian (geochronology) and the RAS Astronomical Council (astronomy and orbital dynamics).

The 1970s opened up new perspectives in meteorite collection. It turned out that this can be done most effectively in Antarctica and desert regions of the Earth where the samples are best preserved. Scientific expeditions have been able to find some absolutely new types of meteorite matter.

Our collection features meteorites of practically all known types. Every year we provide some 50 to 100 of samples to domestic and foreign research labs.

The scientific value of these meteorites cannot be overestimated. They bear witness of the processes in the remote, and often extinct, stars, recording the earliest stages of the history of the formation of matter in the solar system. Meteorites reflect the circumstances of the origin and evolution of heavenly bodies. And it is not impossible that they are linked with the origins of life and the destinies of terrestrial civilization.


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