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Russian Meteorite Pieces Land at Field Museum: Exhibit Opens Wednesday

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | April 9, 2013 1:47pm | Updated on April 9, 2013 5:28pm

MUSEUM CAMPUS — Fragments of the meteorite that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia Feb. 15 have landed at the Field Museum.

Their arrival was somewhat unexpected, according to Philipp Heck, assistant curator of the museum's new Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies.

Terry Boudreaux, a private meteorite collector with a long history of sharing his finds with the museum, "came in this morning and brought in nine bags full of meteorites from that particular event," Heck said Tuesday.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The largest piece here, at 150 grams, is just amazing, and we want to share that."

The museum plans to share a portion of the collection almost immediately. Heck said he received a directive Tuesday morning from the museum's president, Richard Lariviere, requesting that an exhibit featuring the Chelyabinsk fragments open as early as Wednesday.

To meet that deadline, the museum's team of scientists, curators and collection specialists will be working all night to process the specimens and pull together an exhibit that will be ready for the public in a matter of hours.

As of Tuesday, the team still hadn't established how many meteorite pieces Boudreaux brought back.

"We do have a complete mass of about 2.4 pounds, so we're gonna have to go through individually and weigh them, photograph them, assign numbers and make them available both to the scientific community, and have them on display for the public," said James Holstein, the museum's collections manager of physical geology.

"I had other plans today, but it looks like my plans have changed," Holstein said jokingly.

Heck called the Chelyabinsk explosion "one of the most important meteorite entry events in modern civilization" because the 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite, hailing from the inner asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, can offer an unprecedented look into "the history of our solar system."

"It's basically one important puzzle piece in the big picture," Heck said.

The newly-acquired collection is notable both for its size — more than 200 pieces join the museum's research pool, the largest non-governmental collection of meteorites in the world — and for how quickly it ended up on the Field Museum's third floor research facilities.

Boudreaux said he was on the phone with his longtime partner, meteorite hunter Michael Farmer, "about 35 minutes after" he saw news reports about the explosion over Russia.

"We had a plan worked out right away," Boudreaux said. "Mike got on a plane fairly quickly, and he went over there. [The meteorite] fell on the 15th, and Mike was there on March 6. He went straight to Chelyabinsk."

Their speedy response paid off. Most of the specimens were purchased from locals, and Boudreaux and Farmer split the pool of fragments that they found. Boudreaux said Farmer has already sold his share of the samples, an indication of how high demand is for pieces of the meteorite.

The largest piece in the collection weighs in at more than 150 grams, but museum staff has not yet determined which pieces will be publicly displayed. Heck said much of the collection will be made available to researchers in Chicago and across the globe.