It's not a meteor-wrong, it's a meteorite
ARLINGTON, Minn. — The meteorite Bruce and Nelva Lilienthal found in their field already may be in a research laboratory.
E. Calvin Alexander, a Morse-Alumni professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Earth Sciences, planned to take possession of the invaluable find this month.
Then, small pieces, perhaps weighing a gram or less, will be sent to colleagues around the world for analysis. Researchers at the University of Minnesota will also do research.
Alexander told the Lilienthals he is almost certain that the meteorite is a piece of the Arlington meteorite found in 1894 by Joseph Barry. That meteorite was found two to three miles straight north of their farmstead. It is owned by the U of M and on loan to the Smithsonian.
The odds of the meteorite found by the Lilienthals actually fitting like a piece of jigsaw puzzle with the 1894 meteorite are slim, Alexander said. Meteors typically break apart 20 to 30 miles up. The only time pieces fit together is when they break when the hit the earth's surface, which happened in 1996 in Wisconsin, he said.
How did the meteorite find its way from a Sibley County farm field to the U of M?
It all started a few years ago when the Lilienthals were rock picking in the spring.
They use most of their rocks as rip-rap, but this one was unique, so it went into the rock pile by the barn where they put rocks that are a bit out of the ordinary.
The meteorite stayed there and was a conversation piece until last spring when the Lilienthals saw an article about meteorites in a farm magazine.
They called the source of the article, a man from Canada, and he asked a few questions. They must have answered the right way because he became very excited, Nelva said.
From there, the couple went to see Alexander at the university at the suggestion of their son, Christian, who works for U of M Extension. The U of M is one of six sites that can identify meteorites, Nelva said.
Alexander was pretty sure the rock the Lilienthals carried into his office was a meteorite, but tests performed on a piece weighing .06 grams confirmed it was indeed a meteorite.
"It was just a speck," Nelva said.
In his 40-year career, it was only the fourth meteorite that he'd identified of the many unusual rocks brought to the university for identification.
Only eight meteorites have ever been found and identified in Minnesota, Bruce said.
Once news of the find went public, the Lilienthals were overwhelmed with media interview requests for about two weeks this summer.
"We used up our 15 minutes of fame," Bruce said.
They were featured on radio, television, in print and a publication from the United Kingdom even did a funny video skit featuring the meteorite.
The couple have become the neighborhood's de facto meteorite experts, and they indeed have learned a lot about meteorites since discovering that the unusual rock was more than a rock.
There are three types of meteors, Bruce said: rock, iron and rock iron.
The Arlington II rock, as their find has been dubbed, likely is 4.6 billion years old and hailed from the main meteor belt on the other side of Mars. It weighs in at 33 pounds, the second heaviest one ever found in Minnesota. It measures 16 by 11 inches and is 1.6 inches at its thickest point. The Arlington I meteorite weighed 19.7 pounds.
The Lilienthals have hosted meteor hunters since word of their find went public, yet to this point no one has found a meteor.
"The fun is the hunt," Bruce said.
The hunters bring equipment that allows them to detect iron up to 10 feet deep, so they've found all kinds of chain and other iron.
The Lilienthals, who will have farmed for 35 years this summer, don't know if they will ever find another meteor. They use a rock picker now and may not see unusual rocks as often as when picking by hand.
How does someone tell a rock is a meteorite?
Alexander said it can be difficult, but there are a couple things to look for. First, almost all meteorites contain enough iron that a magnet will stick to them. But, magnets will stick to rocks with iron ore, too. If the meteorite is a recent entrant to the earth, it may have a dull matt black coating. If, however, it's been in the ground for a while it likely will be rusty like the Lilienthal's meteorite.
Most meteorites also are denser than ordinary rocks.
Rural Minnesotans who have spent time picking rocks will feel the difference in their muscles when they go to lift a meteorite, he said.
Meteorites also may be shaped different than most rocks found in Minnesota. Most rocks in the state are glacially derived and are somewhat egg-shaped.
So, if a rock is weird-shaped, heavy and rust-colored, it may be a meteorite.