Chicago Museum Now Has World's Largest Non-Government Meteorite Collection
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CHICAGO — The Field Museum has become home to the world's largest collection of meteorites held outside a government agency, the result of a gift of funding and meteorites worth more than $10 million. With a history of collecting rocks from outer space that began in the 19th century, the Field is establishing the Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies.
"This generous gift and donation will significantly enhance the museum's collection as a national resource for scientists who study the origins of planets, primitive life in harsh environments, and the history of the universe," said Lance Grande, PhD, Senior Vice President and Head of Collections and Research at the Field.
The Field Museum will celebrate opening the Pritzker Center with a special public program on April 18. (See details below.) There are no immediate plans to put any of the meteorites on exhibition, but the museum hopes to display a selection of the meteorites at some future time.
Colonel (IL) J.N. Pritzker (Retired), founder and president of the Chicago-based Tawani Foundation, presented the Field with a gift of $7.3 million to establish the Center named for his father.
In addition to the Pritzker endowment is the donation of its meteorite collections by the Planetary Studies Foundation of Galena, Illinois that includes more than 1,700 meteorite specimens, valued at around $3 million. These collections were assembled by the late James M. DuPont of Watchung, New Jersey and the Planetary Studies Foundation. They will join the more than 2,000 meteorite specimens already in The Field Museum's collection.
With an interest in polar studies that began 25 years ago when he led a U.S. Army unit in Alaska, Col. Pritzker has participated in four scientific expeditions to Antarctica in the past decade as an explorer as well as a philanthropist.
"Meteorites are a phenomenon of the universe," said Col. Pritzker. "They carry the potential for destruction of our planet. Yet they also contain the possibility to answer the question: Is there life outside of Earth?"
Much of Col. Pritzker's interest in meteorites stems from his friendship with Paul Sipiera, PhD, President of the Planetary Studies Foundation who also serves as adjunct curator of the new Pritzker Center.
"Meteorites come from the first solid materials to form in our solar system," said Sipiera. "They are the building blocks of planets. Everything Earth is made of is represented in these meteorites."
Scientists also study meteorites for evidence of primitive forms of microbial life, he said.
While many meteorites started as pieces of asteroids and comets, there is good evidence that some originated on the Moon and Mars. Some meteorites in the Field collection contained material very similar to the moon rocks brought back to Earth by NASA's lunar missions, Sipiera said. "If we get rocks blasted off the Moon," he said, "maybe some come from planets."
Some meteorites in the collection may have originated on Mars, Sipiera said. "There are volcanic rocks with an age and composition consistent with Martian volcanoes. It's circumstantial evidence, but it's very strong," he said.
"It is remarkable that we may have actual pieces of Mars in our collection that were exploded off the surface of that planet with enough force to escape the planets gravitational field, perhaps by the impact of an asteroid or large meteorite," explained Grande. "Once free of the Martian gravitational field these rocks would have had to have been pointed in the right direction to have eventually been captured by the Earth's gravitational field and survived entry through our atmosphere in order to have made it here as Martian meteorites. That makes this type of meteorite exceedingly rare, and it is just one example of the numerous rarities that exist in our meteorite collection," he added.
Meteorites can vary greatly in composition with some specimens resembling boulders and weighing several hundred pounds and others that can be polished like gems. Many meteorites are valued at thousands of dollars for a gram.
Grande continued, "The Pritzker and Planetary Studies gift assures the Field's ability to care for the combined collection in perpetuity. We have built a reputation over the last 115 years as being responsible stewards of priceless scientific collections and the meteorite collection is a significant part of this." The Museum hopes to have a full-time curator of meteorites for the new center by the end of this year, he said.
The Field's early meteorite collection was featured at the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, and the Museum played a key role in founding an international society of meteorite science in 1933. The new Pritzker Center will do much more than merely house and maintain a large meteorite collection, Grande said. The Museum will hire a curator with a background in meteorite studies who will attract other scientists to the Center to study specimens in the collection and do original science.
When scientific findings are published in scholarly journals, it is vital that the meteorite specimens on which the work was based remain in a collection that is available for other researchers to examine, said Peter Makovicky, PhD, chair of the Field's Geology Department.
"We are a library of voucher specimens," Makovicky said. "We provide reproducibility. If someone publishes a finding of evidence of life based on what looks to be a meteorite fossil. We keep that specimen so that later others can re-examine it, perhaps with new technology, to see if the evidence holds up."
The Pritzker Center's primary focus will be on meteorites, but it will also embrace other aspects of polar studies. Many meteorites are found in the Antarctic because the ground there is covered with snow and ice, so that when an explorer finds a rock, chances are good that it arrived from space.
Antarctica is also an excellent venue for the study of primitive life forms that exist in extreme climates and for monitoring global warming, which may eventually become a part of the Pritzker Center's focus, Grande said.