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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scientist Sifts Through Meteorites and Bricks

MTNazarov showing off meteorites at the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry. Its collection includes fragments of what might be a meteorite from 1091.
"A gigantic dragon fell down from the sky, terrifying all the people. In that moment the Earth shook and many people heard the noise."

With these words, an extraterrestrial object made its dramatic entry into Russian history. The account appeared in the "Lavrenty Chronicle" of 1091, describing a hunting trip by Prince Vsevolod near Kiev where he witnessed the apparent fall of a meteorite.

Close to 1,000 years later, samples of what may be that meteorite can be found in the Russian Academy of Sciences' meteorite collection, one of the world's oldest collections of meteorites.

Once stored in the institute's nuclear bomb shelter, the meteorites are now in a new room in the meteorite laboratory. Mikhail Nazarov, a jolly grandfather of 58 and head of the laboratory, walked between two rows of rocks on a recent afternoon, explaining where and when they crash-landed in Russia.

Every year, the meteorite laboratory, housed in the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry on Ulitsa Kosygina, receives hundreds of possible meteorite samples found by ordinary people around the country. If they are lucky, one real meteorite will be among them.

Pulling a box from the windowsill in his office, Nazarov revealed the latest sample sent in by a meteorite-searching hopeful.

"In most cases, it is enough to look at it," said Nazarov, dismissing instantly a sample from the box.

One man recently sent in a brick. "He thought it had fallen from the sky," Nazarov said, despairingly.

Earlier that day, a lab employee had received a delivery of 5 kilograms of granite, he added, without much hope that the granite was not of this planet.

The search has never been easy, said Nazarov, but the prize is worth the sifting, because meteorites allow scientists to examine life beyond Earth without ever having to leave the lab. Studying meteorites means looking back in time before Earth and the solar system existed.

"Ten percent of our understanding of the cosmos comes from the space program," Nazarov said. "The rest is from meteorites."

The pride of the laboratory -- a blackened lump that looks like it was broken off the top of a missile cone -- is kept in a small room on the second floor in the Museum of Extraterrestrial Objects. The lump is beloved because it matches the public perception of what a meteorite should look like.

The meteorite laboratory traces its history back to 1749, when a 700-kilogram piece of iron rock was found near Krasnoyarsk and donated to the Russian Academy of Sciences. It took more than half a century before scientists realized it was from outer space. Today, the world's only monument to a meteorite stands near the spot where it was found.

Even before then, there were plenty of tales of rocks hurtling through the air toward Russia. Meteorites were discovered in the tombs of the Scythians, nomadic warriors who roamed Russia more than 2,000 years ago.

Anna Skripnik, who has worked at the institute since she graduated almost 40 years ago, explained that the discovery of a rock with large quantities of iron "was a kick-start for civilization," giving people access to iron before mining was possible. Swords have been discovered in Egypt made from nonterrestrial metal.

One of the most famous meteorite showers in Russia occurred in Veliky Ustyug in 1290. It is depicted in a famous 17th-century icon showing St. Prokopy saving the town from destruction with his prayers.

Meteorites were seen as a warning for the people to mend their ways. Chapels were often opened at the sites of meteorite falls, and the meteorites were incorporated into the walls of monasteries.

In 1860, the Orthodox church's synod gave permission to make a pilgrimage to "where in 1290, as told by ancient tales, a cloud of stones fell." A still-worn path to an abandoned chapel at the site shows that people today make the pilgrimage.

What to do if you find a possible meteorite
  • Chisel off a 10-gram to 15-gram sample.
  • On a piece of paper, write the date and location of the find; the weight of the sample; any peculiarities such as magnetism or the presence of metal; and a detailed description of how you came upon the sample. For example, "I saw a fiery light in the sky, heard a loud noise and found an unusual stone" or "I found a heavy magnetic rock in a field while plowing."
  • Take a photograph of the sample.
  • Put the three items in a box and mail them to the meteorite laboratory at Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry, 19 Ulitsa Kosygina, Moscow 119991.


  • On show at the museum is part of a meteorite that fell on the eve of the Battle of Borodino on Sept. 5, 1812, which the Russian side interpreted as a sign from the heavens that Napoleon's army would be defeated, which it was.

    The biggest and most mysterious cosmic attack on Russia took place in 1908 when an object -- scientists still dispute whether it was a meteorite or a comet -- exploded above the ground near the Tunguska River in the Krasnoyarsk region. The explosion was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the sound of the explosion was supposedly heard in London. No meteorite finds have been made at Tunguska, and Nazarov said he was inclined to support the comet theory.

    The last big fall was the Sikhote-Alin meteorite, which landed in the Primorye region on Feb. 12, 1947. More than 20 tons have been uncovered, only a small percentage of what is supposed to have landed in the area. A painting of the meteorite's fireball hangs in the Moscow museum.

    Even though Russia's vast size increases its chances of being hit by any interplanetary object, finding the object once it lands has always been problematic.

    "Most of the territory is taiga and bog, where it is difficult to collect," Nazarov said.

    In the 250 years since Russia's first meteorite was identified, only 124 others have been discovered, roughly one every two years. In all, the collection contains 1,230 meteorite samples from all over the world, as well as a few hundred grams of moon dust that was dug up and brought back to the Soviet Union by three unmanned space vehicles in the 1970s.

    The difficulty of finding the rocks inspired an appeal to people to find and send in meteorite samples. In 1898, the tsarist government declared that any meteorite found on Russian territory was government property and offered a reward to anyone who found and turned over such an object. The Soviet government continued with the practice.

    "People of all kinds have contributed meteorites, from rich, educated bourgeois and nobles to ordinary peasants and Siberian nomads," Nazarov and Marina Ivanova wrote in a paper published last year on the history of the meteorite collection.

    After one of the biggest meteorite showers fell near Volgograd in 1922, the government offered a 100 ruble reward -- then a magnificent sum -- to find the meteorite. "Pioneers ran around, and pensioners ran around, but they didn't find anything," Skripnik said. Fragments were found decades later.

    Many meteorites ended up in the laboratory when people had sudden moments of clarity years after being around the rocks. One meteorite was recovered after years of being used as a weight on top of a barrel of pickled vegetables. Another was discovered after the son of a farmer who had struck it with his plow 30 years earlier read a scientific journal and realized what it was. The meteorite was still in the same spot in the field where it had been when it damaged the plow.

    The Soviet heyday was in the 1940s and '50s, when an annual meteorite conference was held and people read the magazine Meteoritika. But the collection suffered as other countries made huge discoveries, mainly in Antarctica and Africa.

    Russia has the second-biggest collection in the world, after the United States, of meteorites discovered on its own territory.

    Nazarov and previous Soviet meteorite scientists see a direct link between the country's social, cultural and economic well-being and the growth of meteorites in its collection. Nazarov's paper contains a graph that shows how the number of objects sent in as possible meteorites level off during times of crisis.

    "You see when something happens, like civil war, it has an effect on the number of meteorites in the collection," Nazarov said.

    "Now there is something of a revival, you can feel it," he said. But pointing to the 1990s, he added, "It looks like civil war."

    The 1990s were a terrible period for Russian science, and the meteorite collection and staff struggled. Even now, Nazarov is paid only 12,000 rubles ($460) per month, and he talks sadly of how difficult it is to attract younger scientists to a junior salary of 3,000 rubles.

    Today, the laboratory's helpers are more interested in profit than a desire to push the boundaries of science. With a burgeoning market in meteorites, where samples are usually split into small lots and sold, the institute authenticates the genuineness of an object and in return takes a small sample -- 20 grams or 20 percent of the total find.

    "It is a compromise, of course. Science wants more than 20 grams," Nazarov said. "But it is a compromise that is productive, and a lot of meteorites have been found by meteorite hunters."

    The laboratory often carries out numerous tests to check whether an object is really a meteorite. One sample found at the bottom of a river near a meteorite fall seemed to fit the parameters of a meteorite until further examination over the course of a year revealed that it was the result of industrial pollution.

    Last month, Vadim Chernobrov, a meteorite hunter, said an expedition had found four fragments in the Altai region that "visually and under a microscope passed tests for meteorite suitability," Interfax reported.

    "I don't think he even knows what a meteorite looks like," Nazarov said, noting that the subsequent tests showed the fragments were not meteorites. He said Chernobrov once claimed to have found a bolt from a time machine.

    Sometimes when meteorite seekers hear the lab's negative verdict, they "get offended and complain," he said.

    Still, Nazarov knows the laboratory, with little funds for its own expeditions, would not have a collection without them and that it needs them to keep searching for the meteorites still unfound throughout Russia.