On the Rocks

The Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory brings space rocks down to earth.

Chrondrite Meteorite

Whether you call them meteors, shooting or falling stars, once they've hit the ground, provided they survive entry and impact, they're meteorites. Like all rocks, they've got stories to tell, but unlike just about every stone you'll ever come across, a meteorite's story is literally out of this world. In Portland State University's Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, Doctors Alex Ruzicka and Melinda Hutson of the Department of Geology, along with their colleague Dick Pugh, and a dedicated team of students, are reading those stories, unlocking clues that can tell them about what it was like in our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, and sharing their knowledge with the rest of the world.

Scientifically, meteorites are valuable because, unlike terrestrial rocks, they're the unadulterated debris leftover from the solar system's formation. Meteorites come in several varieties. There are the stony meteorites, which make up the vast majority of all meteorites. These come in two forms, or classifications, as they're called in the business. Chondrites, so named for the small particles they contain, are mostly made of silicate material. They make up roughly 86 percent of all meteorites. There are also achondrites, which are similar to chondrites in that they're mostly made of silicate material. Still, in their case, that material was once magma hot—these make up about eight percent of all meteorites. The remaining meteorites, a small fraction of the whole, are made of iron or combinations of stone and iron.

The Cascadia Meteorite Lab (CML), which celebrates its 11th year, concentrates its efforts on classifying meteorites, studying meteoritic compositions, and maintaining PSU's collection of 750 meteorites, and educating the public. A series of unfunded projects have led Hutson and Ruzicka to discoveries that became grant proposals which have since been funded by NASA. One such project is a study of "The origin of large, igneous-textured inclusions in ordinary chondrites."

"All of my work," Dr. Ruzicka said, "focuses on the early solar system. And in some meteorites, you'll find these inclusions or strange additions to the meteorite that shouldn't be there. I'm studying these inclusions to learn something about how the solar system formed, how the planets started to come together."

NASA's Cosmochemistry program awarded Ruzicka $315,000 to conduct this study. One of the CML students, Katherine Armstrong, will receive funding from the grant to complete her studies.

Other ongoing projects in the lab include a study of chemical alteration by shock in ordinary chondrites. The CML also received a grant from NASA to acquire an Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD) system for the Scanning Electron Microscope in the Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication at PSU. The EBSD is a tool that will allow them to bridge the gap in magnification between a standard optical microscope and the much more powerful electron scanning microscope.

While Ruzicka and Hutson do receive some funding from NASA, they stress that small donations from the community privately fund many of their research projects and classify meteorites and the community education and outreach they do. Without these gifts, the University would not be able to support much of the lab's activities. For example, NASA recently quit funding the type of education/outreach grants that have funded Dick Pugh's efforts to increase public awareness about meteorites for the past seven years. Private donations now finance dick's efforts. 

"Dick Pugh has been passionate about meteorites all his life," Dr. Ruzicka said.

"And as an educator, he loves to talk about meteorites," Dr. Huston added. "He has a traveling roadshow with a teaching collection. He drives all over Oregon and Washington to talk to students and adults about meteorites. The last two meteorites found and classified in Oregon were found because of Dick's efforts."

In addition to Mr. Pugh's community outreach, the CML is also fulfilling its mission to conduct meteorite research to help understand our place in the universe, and sharing that knowledge with the community by displaying a portion of the University's meteorite collection at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals. And in a unique side to public outreach, the lab also fields requests from the public to identify possible meteorites. The lab offers the public a range of meteorite identification information on its CML website and will visually inspect a possible meteorite for free. If they determine your stone is indeed a meteorite, they can classify it to fulfill the minimum requirements of the Nomenclature Committee of the Meteoritical Society. So if you think you have a meteorite, you are encouraged to visit the CML's web page for what to do.

"Responding to public inquiries is our way of fulfilling the PSU motto of letting 'knowledge serve the city,' only we've replaced the city with the world because we get requests from all over the world," Dr. Ruzicka said.

To hear it from Drs. Ruzicka and Hutson clarify that there is much we can learn about ourselves and our planet from studying meteorites. As Dr. Ruzicka noted, meteorites are unique because they haven't undergone the geological processes terrestrial rocks must endure. They haven't been made and remade by the changing earth, crushed under enormous pressure, or weathered. 

"Most rocks on earth have been transformed once, twice, even multiple times. They've lost the record of what happened at the beginning," Dr. Ruzicka said.

For students both young and old, here at PSU and elsewhere, for anyone interested in our solar system's history, the CML is a source of wonder and inspiration. A unique lab in the Pacific Northwest and one that's risen from humble beginnings and grassroots efforts, the CML with Drs. Ruzicka and Hutson, Dick Pugh, and the undergraduate and graduate students working there are at the forefront of classifying meteorites and making the discoveries that fill in the blanks in the timeline of our solar system.