Meteorite display set up at Waynesburg University museum

February 22, 2013
James “Fuzzy” Randolph, curator of the Paul R. Stewart Museum at Waynesburg University, holds one of the meteorites that are now on display at the museum. - Bob Niedbala / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

WAYNESBURG – Scientists are now beginning to recover the fragments of a large meteor that exploded last Friday over Russia’s Ural Mountains.

The meteor, which injured more than 1,500 people and caused widespread property damage in the city of Chelyabinsk, was the largest recorded space rock to hit Earth in more than a century.

Numerous videos of the meteor streaking across the sky and exploding in a huge fireball flooded the media following the event, spurring interest in the strange space rocks that make their way to Earth.

It also gave James “Fuzzy” Randolph, curator of the Paul R. Stewart Museum at Waynesburg University, the idea of setting up a display of the meteorites that are part of the museum’s collection.

“People are preoccupied with that,” Randolph said of the meteor that came down Feb. 15 in Russia. “I thought I’d set up the display so people can see what a meteorite actually looks like,” he said.

The museum has nine specimens, most of which were collected by Dr. Paul R. Stewart, who was president of the university from 1921 to 1963 and a geologist. Randolph said Stewart probably obtained the specimens through connections he had made during his years studying geology.

One of the meteorites in the collection came from the San Diablo Canyon in Arizona, and another is marked the Santa Rosa Meteorite from Columbia, South America.

The collection also includes several tektites, described as melted sand thrown from a crater formed when a meteor hits the Earth; and several pseudo-meteorites, pieces of rock that were mistaken for meteorites.

Holding one of the meteorites that had been cut to show the inside, Randolph pointed out some of the characteristics of a real meteorite.

The exterior of the stone was smooth, worn by the friction and heat it experiences while entering the atmosphere, he said. On the inside, the meteorite may be brecciated, rock containing embedded fragments, or show the lines caused by being semi-crystalized.

Meteors are small pieces of space debris, usually parts of comets or asteroids, that hit Earth. They normally burn up in the atmosphere, but if they survive and strike the Earth’s surface, they are called meteorites.

“This is what they’re picking up in Russia right now,” Randolph said.

According to news accounts, the meteor in Russia was 55 feet in diameter and weighed about 10,000 tons. It was traveling 46,000 mph when it hit the Earth’s atmosphere and exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs.

The explosion occurred high in the atmosphere, but the shock waves blew out numerous windows. Most of those injured were hit by glass.

Scientists in Russia have already recovered fragments less than half an inch in size, but they believe they eventually could find fragments as large as 20 to 24 inches.

The display at the university museum is open to the public, Randolph said. The museum also includes a large permanent geology display, an archeology collection as well as large collection of Greensboro and New Geneva pottery.

The museum is on the ground floor of Miller Hall and is open weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon or any day by appointment. To schedule a time for a group or individual to visit the museum outside normal operational hours, call Randolph at 724-852-3214.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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