Prize‑winning astrophysicist Corky Marlinson ushered Rachel and Tolland into his work area and began sifting through his tools and rock samples. The man moved like a tightly wound spring about to explode.
All right, he said, quivering excitedly, Ms. Sexton, youre about to get the Corky Marlinson thirty‑second meteorite primer.
Tolland gave Rachel a be‑patient wink. Bear with him. The man really wanted to be an actor.
Yeah, and Mike wanted to be a respected scientist. Corky rooted around in a shoebox and produced three small rock samples and aligned them on his desk. These are the three main classes of meteorites in the world.
Rachel looked at the three samples. All appeared as awkward spheroids about the size of golf balls. Each had been sliced in half to reveal its cross section.
All meteorites, Corky said, consist of varying amounts of nickel‑iron alloys, silicates, and sulfides. We classify them on the basis of their metal‑to‑silicate ratios.
Rachel already had the feeling Corky Marlinsons meteorite primer was going to be more than thirty seconds.
This first sample here, Corky said, pointing to a shiny, jet‑black stone, is an iron‑core meteorite. Very heavy. This little guy landed in Antarctica a few years back.
Rachel studied the meteorite. It most certainly looked otherworldly‑a blob of heavy grayish iron whose outer crust was burned and blackened.
That charred outer layer is called a fusion crust, Corky said. Its the result of extreme heating as the meteor falls through our atmosphere. All meteorites exhibit that charring. Corky moved quickly to the next sample. This next one is what we call a stony‑iron meteorite.
Rachel studied the sample, noting that it too was charred on the outside. This sample, however, had a light‑greenish tint, and the cross section looked like a collage of colorful angular fragments resembling a kaleidoscopic puzzle.
Pretty, Rachel said.
Are you kidding, its gorgeous! Corky talked for a minute about the high olivine content causing the green luster, and then he reached dramatically for the third and final sample, handing it to Rachel.
Rachel held the final meteorite in her palm. This one was grayish brown in color, resembling granite. It felt heavier than a terrestrial stone, but not substantially. The only indication suggesting it was anything other than a normal rock was its fusion crust‑the scorched outer surface.
This, Corky said with finality, is called a stony meteorite. Its the most common class of meteorite. More than ninety percent of meteorites found on earth are of this category.
Rachel was surprised. She had always pictured meteorites more like the first sample‑metallic, alien‑looking blobs. The meteorite in her hand looked anything but extraterrestrial. Aside from the charred exterior, it looked like something she might step over on the beach.
Corkys eyes were bulging now with excitement. The meteorite buried in the ice here at Milne is a stony meteorite‑a lot like the one in your hand. Stony meteorites appear almost identical to our terrestrial igneous rocks, which makes them tough to spot. Usually a blend of lightweight silicates‑feldspar, olivine, pyroxene. Nothing too exciting.
Ill say, Rachel thought, handing the sample back to him. This one looks like a rock someone left in a fireplace and burned.
Corky burst out laughing. One hell of a fireplace! The meanest blast furnace ever built doesnt come close to reproducing the heat a meteoroid feels when it hits our atmosphere. They get ravaged!
Tolland gave Rachel an empathetic smile. This is the good part.
Picture this, Corky said, taking the meteorite sample from Rachel. Lets imagine this little fella is the size of a house. He held the sample high over his head. Okay . . . its in space . . . floating across our solar system . . . cold‑soaked from the temperature of space to minus one hundred degrees Celsius.
Tolland was chuckling to himself, apparently already having seen Corkys reenactment of the meteorites arrival on Ellesmere Island.
Corky began lowering the sample. Our meteorite is moving toward earth . . . and as its getting very close, our gravity locks on . . . accelerating . . . accelerating . . .
Rachel watched as Corky sped up the samples trajectory, mimicking the acceleration of gravity.
Now its moving fast, Corky exclaimed. Over ten miles per second‑thirty‑six thousand miles per hour! At 135 kilometers above the earths surface, the meteorite begins to encounter friction with the atmosphere. Corky shook the sample violently as he lowered it toward the ice. Falling below one hundred kilometers, its starting to glow! Now the atmospheric density is increasing, and the friction is incredible! The air around the meteoroid is becoming incandescent as the surface material melts from the heat. Corky started making burning and sizzling sound effects. Now its falling past the eighty‑kilometer mark, and the exterior becomes heated to over eighteen hundred degrees Celsius!
Rachel watched in disbelief as the presidential award‑winning astrophysicist shook the meteorite more fiercely, sputtering out juvenile sound effects.
Sixty kilometers! Corky was shouting now. Our meteoroid encounters the atmospheric wall. The air is too dense! It violently decelerates at more than three hundred times the force of gravity! Corky made a screeching braking sound and slowed his descent dramatically. Instantly, the meteorite cools and stops glowing. Weve hit dark flight! The meteoroids surface hardens from its molten stage to a charred fusion crust.
Rachel heard Tolland groan as Corky knelt on the ice to perform the coup de grace‑earth impact.
Now, Corky said, our huge meteorite is skipping across our lower atmosphere . . . On his knees, he arched the meteorite toward the ground on a shallow slant. Its headed toward the Arctic Ocean . . . on an oblique angle . . . falling . . . looking almost like it will skip off the ocean . . . falling . . . and . . . He touched the sample to the ice. BAM!
The impact is cataclysmic! The meteorite explodes. Fragments fly off, skipping and spinning across the ocean. Corky went into slow motion now, rolling and tumbling the sample across the invisible ocean toward Rachels feet. One piece keeps skimming, tumbling toward Ellesmere Island . . . He brought it right up to her toe. It skips off the ocean, bouncing up onto land . . . He moved it up and over the tongue of her shoe and rolled it to a stop on top of her foot near her ankle. And finally comes to rest high on the Milne Glacier, where snow and ice quickly cover it, protecting it from atmospheric erosion. Corky stood up with a smile.
Rachels mouth fell slack. She gave an impressed laugh. Well, Dr. Marlinson, that explanation was exceptionally . . .
Lucid? Corky offered.
Rachel smiled. In a word.
Corky handed the sample back to her. Look at the cross section.
Rachel studied the rocks interior a moment, seeing nothing.
Tilt it into the light, Tolland prompted, his voice warm and kind. And look closely.
Rachel brought the rock close to her eyes and tilted it against the dazzling halogens reflecting overhead. Now she saw it‑tiny metallic globules glistening in the stone. Dozens of them were peppered throughout the cross section like minuscule droplets of mercury, each only about a millimeter across.
Those little bubbles are called chondrules, Corky said. And they occur only in meteorites.
Rachel squinted at the droplets. Granted, Ive never seen anything like this in an earth rock.
Nor will you! Corky declared. Chondrules are one geologic structure we simply do not have on earth. Some chondrules are exceptionally old‑perhaps madeup of the earliest materials in the universe. Other chondrules are much younger, like the ones in your hand. The chondrules in that meteorite date only about 190 million years old.
One hundred ninety million years is young?
Heck, yes! In cosmological terms, thats yesterday. The point here, though, is that this sample contains chondrules‑conclusive meteoric evidence.
Okay, Rachel said. Chondrules are conclusive. Got it.
And finally, Corky said, heaving a sigh, if the fusion crust and chondrules dont convince you, we astronomers have a foolproof method to confirm meteoric origin.
Corky gave a casual shrug. We simply use a petrographic polarizing microscope, an x‑ray fluorescence spectrometer, a neutron activation analyzer, or an induction‑coupled plasma spectrometer to measure ferromagnetic ratios.
Tolland groaned. Now hes showing off. What Corky means is that we can prove a rock is a meteorite simply by measuring its chemical content.
Hey, ocean boy! Corky chided. Lets leave the science to the scientists, shall we? He immediately turned back to Rachel. In earth rocks, the mineral nickel occurs in either extremely high percentages or extremely low; nothing in the middle. In meteorites, though, the nickel content falls within a midrange set of values. Therefore, if we analyze a sample and find the nickel content reflects a midrange value, we can guarantee beyond the shadow of a doubt that the sample is a meteorite.
Rachel felt exasperated. Okay, gentlemen, fusion crusts, chondrules, midrange nickel contents, all of which prove its from space. I get the picture. She laid the sample back on Corkys table. But why am I here?
Corky heaved a portentous sigh. You want to see a sample of the meteorite NASA found in the ice underneath us?
Before I die here, please.
This time Corky reached in his breast pocket and produced a small, disk‑shaped piece of stone. The slice of rock was shaped like an audio CD, about half an inch thick, and appeared to be similar in composition to the stony meteorite she had just seen.
This is a slice of a core sample that we drilled yesterday. Corky handed the disk to Rachel.
The appearance certainly was not earth‑shattering. It was an orangish‑white, heavy rock. Part of the rim was charred and black, apparently a segment of the meteorites outer skin. I see the fusion crust, she said.
Corky nodded. Yeah, this sample was taken from near the outside of the meteorite, so it still has some crust on it.
Rachel tilted the disk in the light and spotted the tiny metallic globules. And I see the chondrules.
Good, Corky said, his voice tense with excitement. And I can tell you from having run this thing through a petrographic polarizing microscope that its nickel content is midrange‑nothing like a terrestrial rock. Congratulations, youve now successfully confirmed the rock in your hand came from space.
Rachel looked up, confused. Dr. Marlinson, its a meteorite. Its supposed to come from space. Am I missing something here?
Corky and Tolland exchanged knowing looks. Tolland put a hand on Rachels shoulder and whispered, Flip it over.
Rachel turned the disk over so she could see the other side. It took only an instant for her brain to process what she was looking at.
Then the truth hit her like a truck.
Impossible! she gasped, and yet as she stared at the rock she realized her definition of impossible had just changed forever. Embedded in the stone was a form that in an earth specimen might be considered commonplace, and yet in a meteorite was utterly inconceivable.
Its . . . Rachel stammered, almost unable to speak the word. Its . . . a bug! This meteorite contains the fossil of a bug!
Both Tolland and Corky were beaming. Welcome aboard, Corky said.
The torrent of emotions that gripped Rachel left her momentarily mute, and yet even in her bewilderment, she could clearly see that this fossil, beyond question, had once been a living biological organism. The petrified impression was about three inches long and looked to be the underside of some kind of huge beetle or crawling insect. Seven pairs of hinged legs were clustered beneath a protective outer shell, which seemed to be segmented in plates like that of an armadillo.
Rachel felt dizzy. An insect from space . . .
Its an isopod, Corky said. Insects have three pairs of legs, not seven.
Rachel did not even hear him. Her head was spinning as she studied the fossil before her.
You can clearly see, Corky said, that the dorsal shell is segmented in plates like a terrestrial pill bug, and yet the two prominent tail‑like appendages differentiate it as something closer to a louse.
Rachels mind had already tuned Corky out. The classification of the species was totally irrelevant. The puzzle pieces now came crashing into place‑the Presidents secrecy, the NASA excitement . . .
There is a fossil in this meteorite! Not just a speck of bacteria or microbes, but an advanced life‑form! Proof of life elsewhere in the universe!