Iron Or…?

The Cast: Myself (hoping), Zander (discovering).

As I felt the heft of the weight in my hand, my hopes were high. Odds were probably against us, but you never know for sure unless you try.

In 1961, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined a meteoroid as “a solid object moving in interplanetary space, of a size considerably smaller than an asteroid and considerably larger than an atom”. (thank you, Wikipedia) And for those unfamiliar, the composition of most meteoroids are extraterrestrial nickel and iron. Also, they are divided into three main categories: Iron, stone, and stoney-iron. That last one is not to be confused with irony-stone.

Now, a meteor—known colloquially as a shooting star or falling star—is the visible passage of a glowing meteoroid, micrometeoroid, comet, or asteroid through Earth’s atmosphere, after being heated to incandescence by collisions with air molecules in the upper atmosphere,10, 23, 24 creating a streak of light via its rapid motion and sometimes also by shedding glowing material in its wake. Although a meteor may seem to be a few thousand feet from the Earth,25 meteors typically occur in the mesosphere at altitudes from 76 to 100 km (250,000 to 330,000 ft).26 The root word meteor comes from the Greek meteōros, meaning “high in the air”.23 (again, thank you, Wikipedia)

Then, a meteorite is a solid piece of debris from an object, such as a comet, asteroid, or meteoroid, that originates in outer space and survives its passage through the atmosphere to reach the surface of a planet or moon. When the original object enters the atmosphere, various factors such as friction, pressure, and chemical interactions with the atmospheric gases cause it to heat up and radiate energy. It then becomes a meteor and forms a fireball, also known as a shooting star or falling star; astronomers call the brightest examples “bolides”. Once it settles on the larger body’s surface, the meteor becomes a meteorite. Meteorites vary greatly in size. For geologists, a bolide is a meteorite large enough to create an impact crater.2 (once more, thank you Wikipedia)

Additional: Meteorites that are recovered after being observed as they transit the atmosphere and impact the Earth are called meteorite falls. All others are known as meteorite finds. As of August 2018, there were about 1,412 witnessed falls that have specimens in the world’s collections.3 As of 2018, there are more than 59,200 well-documented meteorite finds.4 (last one—probably—thank you, Wikipedia)

Alright, now that four paragraphs of fun sciency-stuff has gone by, let’s get on with the story. Shall we? Yes, let’s.

My oldest son, who is now in his early 20’s, when at about seven or eight-years-old, went on his first Day Camp with the Cub Scouts. Fortunately for me, I had the time to be able to go with him as an additional adult supervisor. It has been my experience that Scout Leaders will not turn down extra help—especially with the younger kids. This was going to be lots of fun!

And it was. The Day Camp was held in a nearby deserty area. The sun was out, a slight breeze allowed the boys to see the occasional dust-devil. Good stuff. There were crafts and things for the boys to make and time for them to run around and climb on the nearby rocks… Let ‘em get their energy out. At one point there was a whip demonstration—having used one myself, I gotta say the guy was pretty good. Oh yeah, there was a snake-catching demonstration (I guess you would call it that). Now, for those of you who are concerned about what was done, the presenter just talked about how to help protect yourself from snakes, if you might encounter them in the wild. The most often repeated set of instructions: ‘Get an adult.’ & ‘Don’t touch it!’

Well, anyway, as the program wrapped up, my son (Zander) and I were headed back to our van, slowly. I say slowly because my son was a real rock-hound. Not so much anymore, but for many years as a child, he brought all kinds of rocks home (including chunks of cement—and he knew they were just chunks of cement). He just found the shapes and colors fascinating. I think most boys are like that. They just latch onto a subject, or topic, or something, and keep after it… Sorry! Back to the story! Sorry.

So, again, as we walked back to the van, Zander was “Ooo”-ing and “Awe”-ing all the geological junk-glories that nature had unleashed in the area, when he stumbled upon a tremendous find. “Dad! Look at this one!” Ooo, yeah…! It was a beaut! The dark chunk of whatever it was weighed a little more than it probably should—for its size. Excitement filled my mind. Excitement filled Zander’s eyes (I could see it pouring out—he almost exploded). “Whaddya think it is?” His inquisitiveness almost always got the better of him. He was about to pop!

Master mystery solver Velma, and Scooby-Doo, used as scale.

As I was about to give him my theory, some ‘helpful’ passerby ruined the beginning of what could have been a magical journey of discovery. “Looks like you got yourself a nice bit of iron slag.” Then he smiled and walked away—as though he had helped solve an unsolvable mystery for the two of us. Quick parenting tip for those that don’t know: If you’re not the kid’s parent, SHUT UP!!! Let that parent teach their child. Let them help their child down the road of discovery. SHUT UP!!! Unless asked. See, here I was, seconds away from pronouncing my thoughts on the subject when good ‘ole Helpful-Harold walks by and ‘solves’ our little ‘dilemma’ for us. Jerk… (not nice I know, but that’s how I felt—still do)

Where was I? Oh yes, my thoughts. So anyway, After Knuckle-head-Ned walked off, I looked my son square in the eye and said, “It’s pretty heavy. Maybe it’s a meteorite?” Now, I wasn’t trying to get my son’s hopes up just to destroy them, that would be wrong. No, I wanted to take the time to help my son see what might, or might not, make this heavy object something from outer space, or from our ‘backyard’.

“Well, that guy seemed like he knew what he was talking about. So, it probably isn’t.”

“Let’s find out for sure, okay?” I was desperately trying to keep the magic of the possibilities alive and help fuel a desire for learning here. Ooo that Smily-Stupid-head… “It’s iron slag.” poop-head… grr… (referring to that ‘helpful’ guy, not my son) My son agreed and we got into the van with our new ‘mystery rock’ and headed home.

If you are wondering, “Why would you think it could be a meteorite?” or, “Why would that Jerk-dude tell you it’s iron if it wasn’t? How would he know?” Let me explain a few things for you, okay? First, I was currently taking an astronomy class and we had been talking about meteors, meteoroids, and meteorites. And, when a stellar body breaches Earth’s atmosphere, survives the fall, and makes impacts with the ground, that velocity compacts the space between the atoms and molecules. Thus, the meteorite is super dense and super heavy (relatively to its size, that is—if you’ve ever held one in your hand you know what I’m talking about). Also, our area is known for the abundance of meteorite finds. So, while I wasn’t certain about the rock, I was excited about the possibility.

As for the other questions about the iron, well, I live in Iron County. Early pioneer settlers tried to make a go of an Iron foundry here. It didn’t work. Low-quality iron. So naturally, the finding of slag iron from early pioneer settlers isn’t uncommon. And some people just think they know it all. Sheesh.

That Monday I took the rock to my astronomy professor and he was quite excited at my find, although unsure of it himself. He suggested that I take the matter up with a colleague of his that was more experienced in meteorite identification. So I did. That gentleman let me down kindly. He pointed out some things that immediately identified the rock as simple smelted iron-foundry waste. Sad, I know.

The things he pointed out, however, were what I had already noticed as well. On one side there were natural formations of iron still visible. If it had been, at one time, a meteor, once it impacted with the Earth, the visible, natural mineral alignments would have lost structural integrity and disappeared altogether. It was just old, waste, iron slag after all. Oh, well. It was fun having found a meteor with my son—even if it only lasted a few days.

Zander took it pretty well. His hopes hadn’t been that high anyway. For years he kept that iron in his rock collection and eventually gave it to me. I now keep it nearby, as a memento of a grand day together.

Close-up of one of the terran bits that prove this ‘meteor’ is from this planet.

For more information on meteors and the like, visit Britannica online.

2Editors (1 April 1998). “Introduction: What is a Bolide?”. Woodshole.er.usgs.gov. US Geological Survey, Woods Hole Field Center. Retrieved 16 September 2011.
3Meteoritical Bulletin Database. Lpi.usra.edu. Retrieved on 27 August 2018.
4Meteoritical Bulletin Database. Lpi.usra.edu (1 January 2011). Retrieved on 27 August 2018.
10Chapman, Clark R.; Durda, Daniel D.; Gold, Robert E. (2001). “The Comet/Asteroid Impact Hazard: A Systems Approach”. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016.
23Meteoritical Bulletin: Antarctic Iron Meteorites
24Meteoritical Bulletin: All Antarctic Meteorites
25Marlaire, Ruth (3 March 2015). “NASA Ames Reproduces the Building Blocks of Life in Laboratory”. NASA. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
26Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Staff (10 January 2018). “Ingredients for life revealed in meteorites that fell to Earth – Study, based in part at Berkeley Lab, also suggests dwarf planet in asteroid belt may be a source of rich organic matter”. AAAS-Eureka Alert. Retrieved 11 January 2018.

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