Meteoric expectations hit rock bottom in Pasadena

Smithsonian proves stone is of this world

March 01, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Dale Pearce's dreams of cashing in the "Glen Burnie Meteorite" for a down payment on a house for his family crashed and burned yesterday in Washington.

The odd stone that the Pasadena house painter and a NASA scientist thought was the meteor that shot across the sky Saturday night is just a common rock.

"It's an iron oxide, cemented sandstone," said Tim McCoy, curator of meteorites at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington. He examined the stone yesterday.

"These rocks are very common in the Eastern United States, and they are commonly confused with meteorites," McCoy said. "We put it under the microscope, but there was never really any question in our mind once we got it out of the bag."

Pearce, who found the stone Sunday, will continue to rent.

"I did get to learn a lot," he said. "I guess I'll look at it as a good experience. I saw a falling star; I'm not sure where it landed, though."

The commercial value of an authentic meteorite can vary widely depending on size and type, but can be worth thousands of dollars.

But his sons may yet own a real meteorite. A collector called from Virginia and said he would send them one found in Africa.

Pearce's big adventure in science began about 9 p.m. Saturday when he saw a colorful meteor streak across the sky behind his home. Callers to The Sun from Lutherville and Hanover, Pa., said they saw it, too.

On Sunday, Pearce said, he and his two young sons searched woods near their home and found a plum-sized stone in a hole, surrounded by fresh dirt. Pearce picked it up and showed it to a friend. The friend called Michael J. Mumma, an acquaintance who is also chief scientist for planetary research at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

It looked like a meteorite to Mumma, too. So he arranged to have the stone examined at the Smithsonian, and escorted Pearce and the rock to Washington.

Mumma, who said his expertise runs more to comets than asteroids, acknowledged his surprise at the results yesterday. "It fooled us all there for a while. ... I thought it was a meteorite," he said. "I looked very carefully at the impact site and for signs that it might not be natural, and didn't find any. ... I'm puzzled, frankly."

McCoy wasn't. The overall shape of the rock and its weathering could easily be confused with the real thing, he said. "Among all the ones I've looked at that turned out not to be meteorites, this was one of the more convincing," he said.

But closer examination revealed the stone was 80 to 90 percent quartz, which is almost never found in meteorites, he said. And, it was rich in iron oxides - also absent in freshly fallen meteorites.

McCoy said the stone's surface, despite appearances, "had not been melted. The outside was just a weathered version of the inside."

But Pearce and Mumma did the right thing, McCoy said. "It's better to bring it in and have it looked at than to wonder forever," he said.

For their trouble, Pearce and his family got to examine meteorites at the Smithsonian. His son Collin, 6, held a meteorite from Mars - one of 15 known to science.

Mumma has no regrets. "That's the way science goes," he said. "I was glad to have had the opportunity to do this, and I would do it again. Had it been something important, this is how we would have obtained a sample for scientific use."

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