Formed by the most powerful forces in the universe, meteorites can often seem like works of art. James Hyslop, Head of Science & Natural History in London, selects highlights from Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and Other Rare Meteorites, 7-14 February, online
This Canyon Diablo meteorite is associated with the famous asteroid impact that left an almost mile-wide crater in the Arizona desert some 50,000 years ago — a stark reminder of the damage meteorite impacts can cause.
‘For me, this is the most exciting meteorite we have ever offered,’ says James Hyslop, who heads the Science & Natural History department at Christie’s in London. ‘Aesthetically, it has been compared to works by Barbara Hepworth — I am especially reminded of Hepworth’s 1965 sculpture River Form.’
Meteorites of the class known as pallasite are stone-and-metal blends that formed on the mantle-core boundary of their parent body. Extremely rare, they comprise less than 0.2 per cent of all existing meteorite examples.
This specimen has been perfectly cut into a sphere to show off its olivine crystals and peridot gemstones. It looks like an alien world, at once both natural and artificial — much like Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro’s 1974 sculpture, Sfera.
The beautiful crystals of nickel-iron in this meteorite, aligned in what is know as a Widmanstätten pattern, formed in space over millions of years. In order to reveal its internal structure the meteorite has been cut into a cube, and each of its surfaces lightly etched with acid.
When held in your hands, the remarkable weight of the 4½-inch cube becomes apparent: at 12 kilos, it is solid metal and dense. Says Hyslop, ‘I experienced a similar sensation — of an object suggesting the weight of a larger whole — at Kew Gardens in 2012 when I saw sculptor David Nash’s Oculus Block, a huge wooden cube cut from an even more gigantic eucalyptus tree.’
Not all meteorites that fall to Earth are spotted right away: many are exposed to the elements for a period of a time before being discovered. This process is known as terrestrialisation, and results in the production of unique surfaces.
The best examples can have quite a dramatic appearance. ‘When I was unpacking this Dronino meteorite,’ says Hyslop, ‘I saw it from the side and was instantly reminded of my favourite piece of found art, St Edmund, given to English collector and curator Jim Ede in 1975 and now at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.’
Meteorites that fall to Earth are travelling at incredible speeds — 17 kilometres per second, or 61,000km/h. Some 65 million years ago, the force of such an impact famously led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In slightly less catastrophic circumstances, areas hit by meteorites can be ejected from the Earth at such high temperatures that the silica content liquefies, turning to glass as it cools.
The resulting objects, called tektites (from the Greek tektos, meaning melted) were for a long time a mystery to scientists. For Hyslop, the unusually large size and shape of this example recalls another mystery: the Neolithic carved stone balls of Scotland.
On the morning of 12 February, 1947, a fireball brighter than the sun exploded five kilometres above Eastern Siberia. The explosion was heard as far as 300 kilometres away, and a smoke trail 33 kilometres long was visible in the sky.
It was the largest meteorite shower in recorded history. Some of the iron meteorites sculpted by this event resemble a form of Scholar’s Rock: fantastically-shaped stones, found in nature, that inspired centuries of Chinese poets and painters.
Looking up at the moon, the first feature one sees is the distinction between the dark ‘seas’ and the lighter ‘lunar highlands’. Amazingly, this slice of rock, discovered in 2007, comes from those highlands. Millions of years ago, the moon was struck by one of the many meteorites that have contributed to the cratered surface we know today. Pieces from that surface were ejected into space, where they orbited for millions more years before falling to Earth.
In the late 19th century, British scientists James Nasmyth and James Carpenter crafted and photographed large-scale models of the lunar craters, allowing for close examination of the appearance of the moon’s surface. The models are now at the Science Museum in London.
Occasionally when a meteorite falls to Earth, it remains in an orientation that favours melting on only one side.
The extraordinary shape of this miniature meteorite could be compared to a sculpture by Henry Moore, says Hyslop — or perhaps a more primeval and universal form.