Science

UCLA meteorite collection finally reaches the public

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The track lighting has been installed, the pamphlets have been printed, and the 357-pound metal space rock that crashed to Earth 50,000 years ago has been bolted to its small display table.

UCLA's Meteorite Gallery is officially open to the public.

To the casual observer, this small room on the third floor of the Geology Building might resemble the trophy room of a fastidious rock collector. But to curator John Wasson, a 79-year-old cosmochemist at the Westwood campus, it is much, much more.

"Finally, it looks like a proper museum," he said Thursday as he surveyed the modest display space. "I'm very pleased."

Over the last 80 years, Wasson and other UCLA scientists have amassed the largest collection of meteorites in California, and the fifth-largest in the United States. It comprises nearly 3,000 specimens from 1,500 individual meteorites. About 100 of the samples, ranging in size from a few millimeters to more than a foot across, are now on display.

Meteorites are pieces of rock that fell to Earth from outer space, usually after a journey of millions of miles. Many meteorites are fragments of asteroids that survived a collision with Earth's atmosphere. Others once belonged to larger bodies in our solar system.

Inside the wood-and-glass cases that line the walls of the museum, associate curator Alan Rubin pointed out a small piece of Mars that was blasted off the planet after a powerful impact millions of years ago. Then he showed off a bit of the moon that melted when it got hit by an asteroid before it came plunging to Earth.

"To me, meteorites are tactile astronomy," said Rubin, who works with Wasson at UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. "Most astronomers can only look at the things they study from a vast distance, but we get to hold our beloved astronomy in our hand."

Some of the prettiest rocks in the collection are the pallasites — thin slices cut from the boundary between the metal core and the olivine mantle of a meteorite. Displayed with a light shining under them, they look like bubbles of pale green glass embedded in a sheet of silver.

And then there are the pieces of chondrite meteorites that have remained mostly unchanged since the dawn of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Inside these rocks, scientists can find chemical clues to how the planets originally formed.

"The heat of the Earth messes our rocks up," Wasson said. "Meteorites come from asteroids that have cooled completely. Most of the rocks on Earth are a couple of hundred million years old, but the rocks from space are often billions of years old."

Visitors to the museum are invited to touch just one of the space rocks on display — the 357-pound piece of extraterrestrial steel in the center of the room. It is a chunk of the massive projectile known as the Canyon Diablo meteorite that carved the mile-wide Meteor Crater in Arizona 50,000 years ago. The mostly iron meteorite was donated to UCLA in 1934 by William Clark, and it is by far the largest specimen in the museum's collection.

The display space even includes a section devoted to "meteorwrongs." These are funky-looking substances such as iron slag, petrified wood and volcanic rock that are often mistaken for meteorites.

"Everyday I get emails — hopeful emails — from people who think the rock they have is a meteorite," Rubin said. "It is almost always not."

Wasson has been teaching at UCLA since 1964, and has fantasized about making the university's meteorite collection available to the public for 30 years. In 2011, he finally persuaded his department head to bump eight grad students out of their study room so he could transform it into a meteorite museum.

Without a formal budget, the project moved forward slowly. Wasson first opened the gallery door in November 2012, long before he considered the museum complete. Even in the final days before the museum's invitation-only grand opening on Friday, he and Rubin were still tinkering with the display cases and hanging new posters with such titles as "Effects of Thermal Metamorphism on Ordinary Chondrites."

Despite its small size, the gallery is jammed with information. Dotted around the museum are QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone to reveal the chemical composition of meteorites on display, along with when and where they were found and, in some instances, how they were formed.

Wasson thinks it would take most visitors three or four visits to fully absorb the meteorite story he and Rubin are trying to convey. (Luckily, admission is free.)

On Thursday afternoon, there were two people peering at the museum's collection. One of them, Courtney Van Gorden, stumbled across it as she passed through the building after a physical oceanography class.

"It's so cool to imagine that when you are hiking, the rocks you see might not be terrestrial," the fourth-year biology major said.

Some might wonder whether Wasson is perhaps being a little ambitious by describing the former graduate student bullpen as a museum, but Dewey Blanton of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington said it was appropriate.

"The core mission of a museum is rooted in education," said Blanton, the group's director of strategic communications. "They obviously have that."

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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