NC has its own experience with meteorites

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2013 

The space oddity that caused a meteor to explode over western Russia on Friday, just hours before a 150-foot asteroid flew by Earth, was enough to send a North Carolina geologist on an odyssey through the state’s history.

As videos of the fiery meteor over Russia’s Ural Mountains went viral across the Internet, Chris Tacker, curator of geology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh, began a hunt for yellowed North Carolina newspaper clippings from a similar event in 1934.

“Mysterious Shock in Kinston Area,” read one headline that Tacker found in the museum basement.

“Students Report They Saw Meteor: Two Peace students and 4 State College Boys Saw Bright Flash,” said another.

At 1:15 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1934, a fireball raced across North Carolina skies, followed by an explosion that shook the Eastern North Carolina town of Kinston.

Some thought a moonshine still had exploded. Others speculated the city gasworks had blown up on the edge of town.

“Whatever It Was It Gave Us Something [To] Talk About: Blast,” a headline in The Raleigh Times stated at the time.

Eventually, it became clear that a meteorite, weighing more than 100 pounds, had crashed into the Earth near the Pitt County town of Farmville, creating a crater about 6 feet wide and 31/2 feet deep.

At that time, the curator of geology at the natural sciences museum, Harry Davis, tracked the path of the meteorite across the state through correspondence with friends.

A small piece of the meteorite was found on Dec. 7 on the Cecil Dixon farm. The children of Robert Wainright dug up the 121/2-pound fragment, according to reports that Tacker found in the old newspapers.

Several months later, in February 1935, workers plowing the fields for spring planting came across a much larger fragment, weighing 111 pounds.

Davis, the curator, bought the Farmville meteorite fragment for $40, and it has become an integral part of the museum’s collection.

Tacker pulled it from the safe Friday, with the help of a few strong students. He elaborated on how the large rock can offer much more than a glimpse of the 1930s in rural North Carolina – it offers a window into a universe that spans billions of years and miles. Thin slices of the stone placed under a microscope yield colors, patterns and light refraction that help explain the history of the universe.

“The minerals tell you the whole story,” Tacker said.

29 meteorites found in N.C.

Though it is unusual to capture a meteor’s journey on cellphones and car dashboard cameras, as some Russians did Friday, it is not uncommon for meteorites to plummet into our world.

There are 29 officially described meteorites that have been found in North Carolina, according to Tacker.

The museum displays fragments from Bald Mountain, Moore County, Deep Springs and the Uwharrie area of the Piedmont.

Searching for meteorites

Meteorite hunting has become a popular pastime, and amateur geology groups often fan out across the state and nation to search, said Christian Iliadis, a physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

TV’s Science Channel even has a program called “Meteorite Men” based on two guys who scour the Earth looking for buried meteorites.

Geologists, such as Tacker, anxiously await the details of Friday’s latest treasure from space.

“I would like to see what it’s made of,” he said. “I want to see what kind of rock they’ve got.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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