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Star Struck

Many years ago, as darkness fell over a fishing hole on Dix River in Lincoln County, I was walking back to my old jeep when I heard a strange, loud, crackling noise, similar to an arc welder, and noticed a greenish glow on the surrounding landscape. I looked up just in time to see a greenish fireball, low in the sky, falling toward Earth. Then the crackling noise ceased and the light vanished. In my late teens at the time, I knew no one to call, but I have mentioned the incident to nearly every geologist and astronomer whose path I have crossed since then.

The sighting was typical of a rare, close encounter with a meteor, said Richard Gelderman, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Hardin Planetarium at Western Kentucky University. Many such events may go unrecorded or unnoticed, but some have made news in Kentucky over the years.

Stony or metallic objects from collisions in the asteroid belt are called meteors as they are falling, but meteorites after they strike Earth. Since the mid-1800s at least 27 documented meteorites have been found in Kentucky, from Pike County in the east to Calloway, Marshall, and Livingston counties in the west.

In September of 1990, a 3.3-pound meteorite fell through the porch roof of a Pike County couple near the community of Burnwell. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., acquired the stone.

The rare Calloway County meteorite that fell in September of 1950 contained several amino acids not found on Earth. Grains from the 28 pounds of meteorite fragments recovered 9 miles east of Murray have helped scientists study the age of the Milky Way galaxy.

People in seven states observed a spectacular meteorite that fell in Bath County in November 1902. The largest chunk, weighing 178 pounds, was recovered the following spring.

Other meteorites have been found in Allen County, Barren, Bullitt, Carroll, at two sites in Casey County, in Christian, Clark, Franklin, Grant, Harrison, Jefferson, Kenton, Lincoln, Metcalfe, Nelson, Oldham, Simpson, Taylor, Trimble, Wayne, and Whitley. They are each described in a publication available from the Kentucky Geological Survey called Space Visitors in Kentucky: Meteorites and Meteorite Impact Sites in Kentucky, by William D. Ehmann and Warren H. Anderson.

Anderson, a research geologist and minerals expert with the Kentucky Geological Survey, says many of the meteorites found in the state are now in major museums around the world. But some small ones from the William Ehmann collection are displayed in the foyer of the Mining and Minerals Resources building on the University of Kentucky campus.

Anderson has examined hundreds of rock and mineral specimens brought to the university over the years by people who believed they had a meteorite, only to find out that meteorites are very rare, and most rocks found in Kentucky are naturally occurring iron oxides or carbonates such as hematite, limonite, magnetite, siderite, or a piece of pig iron, or a piece of iron slag found in the vicinity of one of Kentucky’s many historic iron smelting sites.

For questions, or to order the Kentucky Geological Survey publication on meteorites, call (859) 257-3896.

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