The meteorite in question
The meteorite in question Credit: Karen Bean

On the morning of February 15, right in the middle of rush hour, a meteorite exploded over the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk. It was the first meteorite explosion in nearly a century, and since many Russians keep dash cams in their car for insurance purposes (fraud is rampant), it was also the most documented.

Originally 50 or 60 feet long, the meteorite shattered into thousands of tiny pieces, scattered over an area 200 miles long, and caused $33 million worth of damage. A collector gave 234 of those pieces (weighing a total of 2.4 pounds) to the Field Museum, which has one of the world’s largest collections of meteorites. Now 50 of them are on display in Stanley Field Hall.

The meteorite is an ordinary chondrite, says curator Philipp Heck. That means it’s made of rock and metal, materials found on earth, and it’s about 4.6 billion years old. The exterior of the pieces melted a bit when they entered earth’s atmosphere, but the interior is pristine. Its radioactivity level, in case you were wondering, is very low.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Heck says. “Otherwise we wouldn’t put it on exhibit like this.”

Heck and his colleagues are studying the meteorite for clues about the history of the solar system. Unfortunately, it won’t help them predict the next meteorite crash. “It could happen tomorrow over Chicago,” he says. “It shows how vulnerable we really are.”