The U.P.’s Own Extraterrestrial: The Iron River Meteorite
Pictured above: The slice of the Iron River Meteorite now located at the Iron County Museum in Caspian, MI.
The release of the first photos from the James Webb Telescope in July were historic in the grandest sense of the word, but did you know that the U.P. has its own outer space wonder?
The Iron River Meteorite is the only verified meteorite to have ever been found in the U.P., and it is one of only eleven in the entire state. Remarkably, through the collaboration of two Michigan museums, this extraterrestrial has just “phoned home!”
The discovery of the Iron River meteorite dates back 133 years.
In 1889, a farmer and his son, Peter (age 6), were picking rocks out of a field on their farm off Wagner Lake Road in Iron River. As they hefted the stones into a pile, Peter came across a stone that was much heavier than the others for its size and had unusual characteristics.
He showed it to his father who disinterestedly told him to toss it onto the pile with the rest. As most 6-year-old boys would do, he secretly pocketed the unique rock.
Sometime later, Peter brought it to the office of the mine near his family’s farm as they often discovered geological oddities, and it was these folks who first suggested Peter’s rock could be a meteorite. The rock became a family heirloom of sorts, displayed as a conversation piece for decades. It was passed down to Peter’s son, Ellsworth.
In 1964, Ellsworth, who was living in Lansing at the time, came across an article in a newspaper reporting on a recently identified meteorite from Kalkaska, Michigan. The article noted the scientific importance of such a discovery, and so he decided to have the family’s alleged space rock properly identified.
The Iron River Meteorite was officially verified in 1965 by Von Del Chamberlain, a former Michigan State University professor, who studied it and determined its composition to be mostly iron with trace amounts nickel and iron-chromium-sulfide.
How fitting that the Iron River Meteorite would be made of iron!
It became part of the collection of MSU, and was stored there for decades until January of this year when it went on display at the Abrams Planetarium in their new exhibit showcasing pieces of all eleven Michigan meteorites.
It was by chance that a regular volunteer at the Iron County Historical Museum (ICHM), Deborah Davis, happened across an online article about the Iron River Meteorite and the new Michigan meteorite exhibit.
Serendipitously, ICHM has been working on its own newly-constructed geological exhibit featuring samples of Michigan rocks and minerals, and as a long shot, reached out to the planetarium to request that a piece of the Iron River Meteorite be returned to its hometown for display.
To the surprise and excitement of the museum staff, the planetarium happily agreed, saying the Abrams Planetarium has a policy to keep the Michigan Meteorites in Michigan rather than selling or sending them to other states or national museums (e.g. the Smithsonian, which has vied for specimens in the past).
Therefore, in keeping with that philosophy, they were happy to send a piece of Iron River’s meteorite back to its original home.
Iron County Museum Director, Erika Sauter (left photo), has been overseeing the building of the new rock and mineral exhibit that will prominently feature the Iron River Meteorite. Deborah Davis, museum volunteer (right photo) signs the paperwork to transfer ownership of this portion of the meteorite to the Iron County Museum. Shannon Schmoll, Director of the Abrams Planetarium, made the trip from East Lansing to bring the Iron River Meteorite back home to the U.P.
The process of cleaving a slice from a meteorite is involved and requires special skills and tools. A planetarium volunteer, Craig Whitford, used a small trim saw with a diamond blade to cut off a slice from the meteorite.
It took thirty minutes to cut just one inch, and the blade had to be replaced partway through the process. Whitford explained that iron meteorites are particularly difficult to cut due to their iron-nickel content and that a non-water coolant had to be used during the slicing process to avoid oxidation of the iron. After it was cut, it was coated in a rust-inhibiting chemical.
The original meteorite was etched with a nitric acid mixture in 1964 by Chamberlain. This etching process brings out what’s known as a Widmanstätten pattern, which not only verifies its extraterrestrial origin, but also provides scientists with more information to classify the meteorite within the family of iron meteorites.
Once the slice was ready for transport, it was the original volunteer who learned of the meteorite, Deborah and her family, who met Abrams Planetarium director, Shannon Schmoll, in Manistique to pick it up and bring it back to Iron River.
The Iron River Meteorite will go on display in the new rock and mineral exhibit of ICHM which is in the finishing stages. Visitors can view the work-in-progress during regular museum hours. To learn more, visit ironcountymuseum.org or call (906) 265-2617.
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