Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the July 17, 2006 edition of the Dayton Daily News.
Nobody is certain of its exact history, but a meteorite that lore says landed in the 1890s at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds has provided important clues as to how the solar system formed.
Of all the otherworldly buzz linked to Dayton since manned flight took off and Hollywood extraterrestrials slithered onto the scene, few celestial objects are as little-known to the public as a chunk of iron space debris known as the Dayton meteorite now housed in a secure cabinet at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
This particular meteorite, celebrated in scientific circles, is one of 35,000 specimens stored in the National Museum of Natural History Building on the National Mall.
It’s not in its original shape because so many slices have been taken for scientific research. The meteorite’s unusual composition has made it a popular subject, said Tim McCoy, the Smithsonian’s meteorite curator. McCoy is quick to note that his Ph.D. research dealt with the Dayton meteorite.
Up to 3 million visitors annually who pass through the spectacular, glittering displays of gems and minerals, including the Hope Diamond, can see a piece of the meteorite.
The Dayton Daily News published articles about the meteorite in 1951, and in 1966. But in the years that followed, the meteorite was largely forgotten, even as it was being sliced and diced and examined by inquiring minds.
As fall faded into winter in 1951, Chinese forces invaded the capital of Tibet, NATO accepted Greece and Turkey as members and on Oct. 4, the Daily News reported that Smithsonian Institution officials identified the Dayton meteorite as Ohio’s ninth. Oddly enough, it was noted, six of those nine verified Ohio meteorites had fallen in or near the Miami Valley. The Dayton meteorite, however, already had a colorful history.
It had been sent to the Smithsonian by Stuart H. Perry, editor and publisher of the Adrian (Mich.) Telegram, who also was an amateur meteorite collector.
Perry came into possession of the iron through L.R. Keyser, a University of Cincinnati student whose grandfather, Albert Seifert, ran a concession stand at county fairs.
The story handed down from the family is that during a summer evening in 1892 or 1893, the meteor came screaming from the sky before it hit the Montgomery County Fairgrounds with such force that it buried itself four feet into the ground. It was smoldering when recovered.
Scientists believe otherwise. No mention of the meteor’s fall ever made it into scientific literature, and Dayton at the time was flourishing. Further, the meteorite showed signs of weathering that indicated it hadn’t landed in modern times.
It’s quite possible Seifert bought the meteorite from a farmer he met at a fair, scientists now believe. Seifert perhaps had a motive to hype the meteorite’s recovery. As a concession stand operator, he had the meteorite on hand during lengthy travels on the county fair circuit through Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, and he likely used it as a novel customer draw, McCoy said.
“People could see (it) … and buy something from the concession stand,’’ McCoy said.
How meteors form
Falling stars continue to fascinate. Andrea Koziol, professor of mineralogy at the University of Dayton and president of the Dayton Gem and Mineral Society, said she receives three or four inquiries a year from those who believe they’ve found a meteorite. She has yet to identify the real thing. The key sign is what is known as a fusion crust, indicating a fiery descent through the atmosphere, Koziol said.
“As the meteor comes in, it gets very hot. But only the surface gets hot. The exterior is burned and melted. That is the key giveaway,” she said.
Whether dug up by plow in a farmer’s field or discovered smoldering beside a fairground horse barn, no one will probably never know.
What is known, McCoy said, is that the 4.5 billion-year-old meteor once orbited the sun in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter until it collided with another object, which sent it hurtling in our direction.
Iron meteorites are generally thought to have formed in the cores of asteroids, McCoy said. The Dayton meterorite solidified later than other meteorites, which left it with a very high percentage of nickel.
It led to other oddities, such as having two phosphate minerals present that occur nowhere else in the solar system.
What all this means is that although technology isn’t advanced enough to allow us to sample the Earth’s core, we can learn how it might be composed by studying meteorites.
“When the hot, molten core crystallizes and changes from a liquid to a solid, certain elements give us clues to how that happens,” McCoy said.
It’s significant, McCoy said, that while most iron meteorites contain 5 percent to 10 percent nickel, Dayton contains 17.6 percent. Nickel is an element that provides clues about the transition from a molten to a solid state.
The later an iron meteorite crystallizes, the more nickel it will contain, McCoy said. “To make matters more interesting, Dayton probably formed in a different way from our own core. As asteroids began to heat up and melt, the metal that melted first may have formed a very small core. Only with much more heating and melting did a large core, like the Earth’s, form,” McCoy said.
“The asteroid from which Dayton formed apparently never reached this higher stage of melting, so it came from a very small core. One of the interesting features of this core is that it contained bits of all kinds of other stuff, including elements like phosphorus, sulfur and carbon and even pieces of silicates like those that you might find in rocks around you. This core had a long time to stew and the elements and rock bits began to react.”
The reaction produced minerals found nowhere else, McCoy said. Brianite and panethite are phosphates — much like fertilizers or the minerals in teeth — but they have very strange compositions, he added.
“Dayton is the weirdest one of its group,” McCoy said. “Again, that makes it special and the reason scientists want to study it.“
Ultimately, the meteorite offers clues to how the Earth’s core might have formed and the chemical reactions that occurred during the birth of our planet, McCoy said.
“Whether it is from the city of Dayton or not, the citizens there should be justifiably proud to have contributed a one-of-a-kind meteorite that answers — and continues to pose — such profound questions,” he said.
WHAT are meteors?
• Material falling from interplanetary space through Earth’s atmosphere is called a meteor.
• Bolides are larger, fireball meteors.
• A meteroid has not yet entered Earth’s atmosphere, and a meteorite is a chunk that survived the trip throught the atmosphere to actually strike the Earth.
• There are three major classes of meteorites: stony, iron, and stony-iron.
WHERE do meteors come from?
• Most meteorites come from asteroids, and iron meteorites are believed to form in the core of asteroids. The asteroid belt lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The belt is believed to have been created by debris left over from the formation of the solar system. A collision between two asteroids can send debris headed earthward.
• Planetary meteorites might have come from actual planets. Scientists have determined some meteors that landed in Antartica came from the moon. There have even been some from Mars.
• Many of the smallest micrometeorites are dust from comets.
• Many meteorites preserve chemical and physical properties that were established 4.5 billion years ago and provide some of the best clues about the earliest history of the solar system.
CAN you see some with the naked eye?
• YES. Because Earth’s orbit passes through the same debris clouds periodically, meteor showers can be predicted, like the Perseid meteor shower.
• If you’re lucky, even on average nights sporadic meteors can be seen streaking across the sky at the rate of about five per hour.
TIMELINE OF THE DAYTON METEOR
4.5 billion years ago: Forming the core of an asteroid. The hot, molten core crystallizes and changes from a liquid to a solid.
Sometime in the distant past: Two asteroids collide, sending some iron headed our way. They can spend millions of years orbiting the sun before they fall to Earth. Meteorites range in mass from less than a gram to more than 50 tons.
Later, sometime in the distant past: The Dayton Meteor streaks across the sky and likely lands somewhere in the Dayton region.
1890s: County fair concession operator Albert Seifert comes into possession of the meteor, possibly by obtaining it from a farmer who found it in a field. For some time, Seifert takes it on his circuit of county fairs in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The story handed down in the family is that the meteor fell to Earth in the early 1890s and landed at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, hot to the touch.
1951: Dayton Meteor is conveyed to the Smithsonian Institution by a Michigan newspaper editor. It begins to be examined by scientists, who quickly determine it’s an unusual find, saying its iron is different from all other known meteorites from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Dayton Daily News article on Oct. 4, 1951, is headlined, “Smithsonian Identifies Officially Ohio’s 9th Meteorite.” E.P. Henderson, associate curator, tells the Daily News that the surface of the meteor has no flight markings indicating that the original ‘flight crust” formed when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere had been lost in the years of weathering while buried in the ground, thus scientists doubt the meteor fell in modern times.
October, 1975: “On the occurrence of brianite and panethite, two new phosphate minerals from the Dayton meteorite,” is published in the Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 31, Issue 10. 1975: Vagn Buchwald, in a seminal 1975 work on iron meteorites, mentions the Dayton Meteor and discusses a bit about its history.
Today: A piece of the Dayton Meteorite is on public display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History Building.