CHICAGO - The Field Museum is now home to one of the freshest and most interesting meteorites, which fell from outer space just a couple of weeks ago.
There are 60,000 cataloged meteorites on Earth. But the one at the Field Museum, being held in the bowels of the scientific offices beyond public view and ready for study, is totally uncontaminated
The rock is called a chondrite, about a cubic inch in size. Already it has been sliced with a diamond cutter for examination under the electron microscope of the Field's Meteoritics and Polar Studies lab.
The lab's associate curator, Professor Philipp Heck, says the chondrite is a critical addition to a world class collection of space rocks.
"Our main interest is really studying the rock to learn about our origins, to learn about how the solar system formed," he said.
Two days after it landed on Earth on January 16, meteorite hunter Robert Ward found it on the ice of a small lake northwest of Detroit, just 250 miles from Chicago. Ward works with the Field and ensured the museum got its hands on the heavenly body.
Heck said people like Ward are "hard-wired" to find these things. Ward apparently got on a plane from Arizona the moment he heard a meteorite had fallen in Michigan.
"These rocks haven't seen much heating since they formed," Heck said. "So they are essentially a frozen piece of the earliest materials that formed in the solar system."
In the lab on a busy day, a graduate student identified the minerals in the chondrite. Jennika Greer has found nothing so far that is earth-shattering, but there was delight in her eyes as she peered at computer screens showing the tomography of the rock.
"This is a way to look back in solar system history much like we would look at rocks here on Earth," she said.
The Field Museum has one of the world's greatest meteorite collections. The Michigan projectile will take a place of prominence in it because the men and women who pursue knowledge for its own sake there know, through its mineral signature, that the new rock likely came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, making it about 4.6 billion years old; time zero for our solar system.
"What is different with this one is it was found just two days after it fell -- it's very fresh. It might contain stuff that is not preserved in other meteorites because they have seen water or stuff," said Heck. "Or they have been lying on the ground for a long time colonized by bacteria or other microorganisms from Earth."
And that makes what flew over Detroit another treasure for Chicago's treasure chest by the lake.