When you hear the word “meteor,” you probably think of so-called shooting stars—the streaks of light that zip across the night sky when a small bit of space debris, usually no bigger than a grain of sand, speeds through Earth’s atmosphere and burns up because of friction with air molecules. If you have a more catastrophic bent, you might think of the bigger chunks of stuff that blow apart during their passage, generating powerful shock waves: A good example is the one that exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in early 2013, injuring about 1,500 people and damaging thousands of buildings. Another is the object that detonated above a region near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Siberia in 1908, scorching and flattening trees across a remote area that was almost twice the size of Hong Kong. And sometimes a big “space rock” makes it all the way to Earth’s surface, such as the sizable asteroid or comet that smashed into what’s now the Gulf of Mexico some 66 million years ago and ended the reign of the dinosaurs.
What you probably don’t think of is a meteor of any size landing on your house. But while that event is unlikely, it happens about once a year, on average, somewhere on the planet, according to a calculation by astrophysicist Avi Loeb of Harvard University. It happened in 1954, when a napping woman in Sylacauga, Ala., was badly bruised by an 8.5-pound meteorite (the term for a meteor that makes it to the our planet’s surface) that fell through her roof. It happened in Wethersfield, Conn., in both 1971 and 1982 (no occupants were injured either time). And while this incident didn’t involve a house, a meteorite crashed into the trunk of a red Chevy Malibu in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1992, staining the space rock red.
Just over two weeks ago, it happened again: on May 8 an approximately one-kilogram (2.2-pound) meteorite blasted through the roof of a man’s house near Titusville, N.J., just a short distance from where George Washington crossed the Delaware River in 1776. It landed in an upstairs bedroom after ricocheting between the floor and ceiling, Christine Lloyd, the man’s daughter, told WPVI, a Philadelphia, Pa.–based TV station. Lloyd’s sister Suzy Kop was the one who found the object in her father’s house. At first she had no clue what it could be. “It was warm,” Kop told WPVI. “It definitely was warm…. I just thought it was a random rock from outside. Why would it be in the bedroom?"
Kop called the police, who soon contacted the nearby College of New Jersey (TCNJ), where Nathan B. Magee, chair of the physics department, confirmed that the object was a meteorite. “About 70 percent of it was covered in a fusion crust,”a coating formed by the intense heat of friction as the object sped through the atmosphere, he says. “But about 30 percent was broken open, so we could see the minerals inside.” That led Magee and his colleagues to identify it as a chondrite, a meteorite made mostly of rock, in contrast to the iron and nickel composition of so-called iron or “ferrous” meteorites. Chondrites represent some of the original material the planets and asteroids were built from some 4.5 billion years ago. As a result, they’re a crucial window into the formation of the solar system.
Especially interesting to meteoriticists are inclusions in meteorites called chondrules (the origin of the word “chondrite”), which are, as geochemist Alan E. Rubin of the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in Scientific American in 2013, “tiny beads of melted material, often smaller than a rice grain, that formed before asteroids took shape early in the solar system's history.” The chemical composition of chondrules can help scientists understand the structure and composition of the nebula of gas and dust from which the planets and asteroids formed. The Titusville meteorite, however, evidently has almost no such inclusions.
“That’s kind of surprising,” says retired meteoriticist Jeremy S. Delaney, who was formerly at Rutgers University and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. He learned of the Titusville object when a friend of a friend sent an e-mail that contained links to news coverage of the incident and asked if Delaney had heard about it. He hadn’t, so he called the Hopewell Township Police Department, which directed him to TCNJ. Delaney was there when Kop brought the meteorite to Magee for inspection. “It was in a police evidence bag,” Delaney says. “As soon as they took it out, I said, ‘That’s a beauty.’” What made the object so beautiful, he explains, is that it was perfectly fresh. According to Denton S. Ebel of the AMNH, who specializes in meteoritics, chondrites make up about 85 percent of all meteorites. Most of them fall unnoticed into the ocean. And those that fall on land usually remain undiscovered: if they are found, it’s almost always after years of exposure to erosion and environmental contaminants. In this case, there was none of that—cracked crust aside, Kop’s space rock was pristine. And cementing that this object was indeed a meteorite, Magee says, is the fact that it was tracked by radar as it streaked through the atmosphere. Of the several eyewitnesses to its fiery plunge, he adds, at least one reported the fireball breaking into multiple streams of light—meaning more fragments might still await discovery. “I’ve heard that people are out in the fields looking for them,” Magee says.
All of these reports plus the assorted holes and dents the chondrite punched in the house should help scientists reconstruct its direction of travel and maybe even determine where in space it came from—both valuable in trying to understand the meteorite’s origin. But further study in the lab offers the best chances for nailing down its formation history. Unfortunately, Delaney says, the scanning electron microscope Magee used at TCNJ “didn’t have the right bells and whistles to do chemical analysis of any kind.” Or at least they weren’t available on that fateful day. “The x-ray detector on the microscope wasn’t working,” Magee says, “but we have a technician coming in to fix it.”
In the meantime Delaney and Ebel hope Kop will be willing to bring the meteorite to a more sophisticated laboratory such as the one at the AMNH—and maybe even donate it to AMNH’s or another museum’s permanent collection. Delaney says he talked to Kop about both options during the meteorite’s initial lab testing. “My understanding is that [Kop and her family] are very interested in getting the science done,” he says.
Both Delaney and Ebel stress, however, that the chondrite’s fate is entirely the family’s decision because the family has the rights to the meteorite; it would be inappropriate, Delaney and Ebel say, for scientists or the general public to exert pressure on its members. The family could choose to keep the object—or to sell it to private collectors, who reportedly are already reaching out with offers in the $10,000-to-$20,000 range.
If either of these scenarios plays out, the Titusville meteorite could effectively be lost to science. But what would science really lose? Of course, this object could be another brick in the edifice of our understanding of the solar system’s deepest history—but it’s unlikely to be a particularly special one that somehow revolutionizes our understanding of how the planets and asteroids came to be. Still, Delaney says, “it’s always good to have one more meteorite that adds to the big picture.”