You may recall I mentioned having won a small contest held by Phil Plait, aka Mr Bad Astronomy, who said I'd be receiving something. Unknown in specific to me, but he remarked that I'd "like it".
An envelope fell through the door, and inside, a letter, and something a little heavy, to one side. A pass to something? No - it was something uneven, gently swathed in thin bubble wrap. He advised me to hold it in my hand as I read its story, and so I did.
His letter read:
Take a look at the chunk of metallic shrapnel, hold it in your hand while you read this..
It started out as a calm day, but it wouldn't last. At 10:38 am, anyone within a hundred miles of the Sikhote-Alin mountains near Vladivostok, Russia, got the shock of their life.
On that morning of February 12, 1947, a chunk of nickel-iron the size of a minivan came screaming in from the north, traveling at nearly 10 miles per second - 35,000 miles per hour. Trailing smoke and flame, the asteroid underwent vast pressure as it rammed through our thick atmosphere. At a very high altitude it began to break up from the force. The pieces fell together until about 3 miles up when one piece exploded violently, scattering more fragments.
The pieces hit the ground, spread out over a large area. Named after the area they fell, thousands of Sikhote-Alin (sick-OH-tee uh-LEEN) meteorites have been found. They left pits and craters over the countryside. Pieces from the original breakup high in the air - usually called complete specimens - look like your typical meteorite, with pits in them called regmalypts. These were still high enough and moving fast enough to experience considerable sculpting from atmospheric heating.
The pieces from the lower explosion had slowed quite a bit, and were too low to have changed their shape much. Consequently, they look more like exploded shrapnel (thik Elmer Fudd's gun barrel after Bugs Bunny sticks his finger in it).
What you have here is a piece of shrapnel from this meteorite. Its composition is about 93% iron, 5.9% nickel, 0.42% cobalt, 0.46% phosphorus, 0.28% sulfur, 52 parts per million gallium, 161 ppm germanium, and 0.03 ppm iridium.
Most meteorites are stone. They come from giant rocks in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. When a large body forms in a solar system, all the stuff making it up is at first mixed, like batter. But when it gets big enough, the heavy stuff - metal - sinks to the center. So you need something big for that to happen, bigger than the Moon, so that its gravity is strong enough to differentiate it. Then it has to suffer a mighty blow, blowing it into billions of pieces.
What you're holding is a piece of metal that was once deep within the mantle of a planetary-sized body that was destroyed by the impact of another planet-sized body, 4 billion years ago. It orbited the Sun, relatively untouched all that time, until that fateful day in 1947. It's a piece of outer space brought to Earth in a fiery, violent descent.
And now it's yours.
I read that, and was at a loss for words. Really, how could anyone feel anything but overwhelming awe?
Anything more I say is.. rather superfluous. This is, quite literally, the age of the universe, or a sprightly portion of it, from within the core of a once-planet.
This is the most amazing thing I've ever come into contact with!