`Falling star' may have fallen in Md.

Rock: If scientists confirm Dale Pearce's find, the plum-sized meteorite would be the fifth found in the state.

February 28, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Dale Pearce took a rock to work Tuesday and told his co-workers it fell out of the sky Saturday night, and he found it in the woods behind his Pasadena home.

Sure, Dale.

They didn't believe him at first. But Pearce may get the last laugh.

The plum-sized rock that he says blazed out of the sky and smacked into the ground behind the Pasadena Crossroads Shopping Center has been identified by a NASA scientist as a genuine stony meteorite.

Pearce and his rock were due at the Smithsonian Institution this morning, where experts will cut a slice from it to confirm and classify the discovery.

If that proves it's the real thing, the meteorite would become only the fifth known to have been found in Maryland, and the first in 83 years.

Following astronomical custom, it would be named after the U.S. post office nearest the fall. That would appear to make it the "Glen Burnie Meteorite," although Pearce favors Pasadena.

A 40-year-old painter with the Baltimore City housing department, Pearce hopes to sell the space rock and make a down payment on a house for himself, his wife, Michelle, and their two sons, Brad, 10, and Collin, 6.

Turning the dark reddish-brown rock over in his hand yesterday, he said he didn't blame people for doubting his story. "It's kind of hard to believe I'd seen a shooting star and actually found it, and here's the rock. I'd be a skeptic, too."

But Michael J. Mumma, chief scientist for planetary research at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, has seen the rock, and the spot where it fell. And he's a believer.

Mumma got involved Sunday after Pearce showed his find to a friend, Terry Kimmel, a dentist who lives in Arnold. Kimmel was impressed enough to phone his friend - Mumma - who studies comets and other "primitive" relics of the early solar system.

Mumma invited them to his house in Glen Oban, near Annapolis. "As soon as I saw the stone it was immediately obvious to me it was a meteorite," Mumma said.

The saddle-shaped rock shows no sign of weathering, fracturing or tampering. Most tellingly, it has a smooth, black sheen on one side that scientists call a fusion crust - a thin layer melted briefly by friction as a meteor blazes through the atmosphere.

It has evidence of chondrules - tiny spherical globs of minerals that condensed 4 1/2 billion years ago in the disk of gas and dust that formed the sun and planets.

"This was another indication this was a chondritic meteorite," a stony type and the most common found in observed meteor falls, Mumma said. Iron-metal meteorites, and carbonaceous types are rarer, more valuable to collectors and important to science.

If the rock's interior reveals chondrules, that should clinch the identification, Mumma said.

Pearce led Mumma to the impact site Monday morning. The grapefruit-sized crater also appeared genuine, Mumma said. "There was a rather small hole in ground, which was well-fitted to the size of the meteorite," he said. It was surrounded by a foot-wide fan of loose dirt.

Scientists say meteors this size enter the atmosphere at 18 miles per second. But they're slowed by the atmosphere and usually strike the surface at about 200 mph.

"I asked him to put the stone in the hole exactly where he found it so I could photograph it. He put it in with the fusion side down, which is exactly what it should be."

Pearce said he had just gotten into his van about 9:10 p.m. Saturday, preparing to drive from his Kellington Drive home to pick up a tool at his brother-in-law's house. "I had the key in the ignition, and I looked up and saw a streak of light," he said.

In a "split second," it flashed from north to south, trailing a column of blue, green and red light. It passed behind the tower on the Kaiser Permanente building in the 8000 block of Ritchie Highway, and vanished into the woods behind.

"A falling star - that's the first thing that came to my mind, although it was the first time I had ever witnessed one," Pearce said.

He might not be the only one who spotted it. A Lutherville resident telephoned The Sun on Monday morning and said he was startled by a bright shooting star toward the southeast about 9:15 p.m. Saturday. He said it had a tail of blue, yellow and red light.

Pearce noted where the meteor vanished. The next afternoon, he headed into the woods with his sons. He told them it was a treasure hunt. "I thought we were going to find a star," said Collin.

Pearce has walked these woods often with his boys, and knows them well. It's a large patch of young poplars, gum, beech and pine trees, thick with sticker bushes and vines. It took Pearce and his sons 20 minutes to find the stone, resting in its little crater beside a deer trail.

"He was really excited," his wife said. "How many times in your life do you find something like this? I'm really happy for him."

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