Moonstruck: WSU Acquires Unique Lunar Meteorite

David Alexander, a physics professor at Wichita State and executive director of WSU's Lake Afton Public Observatory (LAPO), has good reason to be over the moon nowadays.

That's because WSU recently acquired a piece of the moon to add to its impressive meteorite collection displayed at the Observatory.

While the meteorite is small -- weighing a half-gram and about the size of a thumbnail -- it's nevertheless a valuable piece to own because until last year no lunar meteorite was owned privately, much less offered for sale.

Until last year, NASA had owned all the lunar meteorites found on Earth. On March 23, 1997, a lunar meteorite weighing 513 grams was found near Dar Al Gani, Libya. In recent months, about 50 grams was cut from the baseball-sized meteorite and offered for sale by its anonymous European owner. Most of the cut pieces weighed a half-gram to 1 gram.

When Alexander heard through a meteorite collector in Oklahoma that pieces were on the market, he jumped at the opportunity to acquire a piece.

"Ours is a little more difficult situation because we don't have money to spend," says Alexander, explaining how LAPO acquires its pieces. "We've never spent so much as a penny on a meteorite. That's not an appropriate use of state resources, but we do have a good collection of surplus meteorites that we can barter and trade. That's how we've diversified our collection."

When he and the Oklahoma dealer couldn't agree on trade terms, he asked a trusted local collector for help. The collector contacted a dealer in Colorado who also had a lunar meteorite for sale. LAPO traded a meteorite weighing 3 kilograms, 5,000 times more than the lunar meteorite it got in return. Alexander described that meteorite as a "moderately unusual stony iron meteorite, about 50 percent metal and 50 percent crystals of rock" unsuitable for display because it hadn't been properly cut. The trade was handled in a rather common way -- the meteorites were exchanged through insured U.S. mail.

The lunar meteorite is literally made up of rocks. "The surface of the moon has been ground up into a fine powder and gravel mix," says Alexander. "When a large object impacts the moon it compresses it back into rock."

WSU's lunar meteorite is primarily dark gray in appearance with lighter flecks, a result of it being a mixture of the moon's "lowlands" and "highlands." Alexander described the lowlands as the darker, lava-filled areas of the moon, while the highlands are the lighter areas of the moon that were never covered by lava. The meteorite's edge has a smooth, wavy appearance, characteristic of the melting process meteorites go through while hurtling through the Earth's atmosphere. It likely was blasted into orbit by a powerful impact of an object into the moon's surface.

The lunar meteorite will eventually be displayed at the Observatory about 20 miles southwest of downtown Wichita. Because of limited resources, Alexander and his two-member LAPO staff will take some time to develop the educational display that will house and surround the meteorite. "We want to make sure it's optimally designed," says Alexander, predicting it will go on display later this fall or early winter.

The lunar meteorite will be a valuable addition to LAPO's meteorite collection which includes a Mars meteorite weighing 10 grams. Alexander says he believes it is unusual for a university or museum to own both a piece of the moon and Mars. (A few museums, including the Kansas Cosmosphere, have on display pieces of the moon -- either rocks gathered during Apollo missions or meteorites found on Earth -- that have been loaned to them by NASA.) Mars meteorites also have become more desirable in recent years. Their value skyrocketed briefly when the discovery of fossil life in a Martian meteorite was announced.

The meteorite collection at LAPO also includes a number found in Kansas, which has a unique distinction among collectors. Only Texas, Antarctica, India, Australia and the former Soviet Union -- all of which are much larger in size than Kansas -- have yielded more discoveries of meteorites, according to Alexander. The distinction doesn't mean Kansas has been pummeled more by meteorites -- it's because of its agricultural nature. Most of the meteorites have been plowed up or discovered by farmers. It wasn't unusual in the 1920s-'40s for meteorite collectors to travel Kansas roads, asking farmers if they'd found unusual rocks and then offering to purchase them, says Alexander.

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Contact: David Alexander, (316) 978-3988. Photographs of the meteorite are available and can be obtained by calling Amy Geiszler-Jones, media specialist, (316) 978-3409.

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