Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/November 1872/On Meteoric Stones

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THE substantial unity of the celestial objects distinguished in common language by the names shooting or falling stars, fire-balls, and meteorites, and further, the coincidence in many important respects of these with comets, and possibly with the zodiacal light, were suggestions made by Humboldt in the "Cosmos," which have received much confirmation from the subsequent advance of science.

The greater apparent velocity with which the ordinary meteors traverse the atmosphere as compared with that with which the less frequent larger bodies are seen to move, the marked periodicity that attends the recurrence of the former in several, and especially in two, notable cases of meteor-showers, offer an apparent contrast between these classes of meteors; it is not, however, in all probability, a real contrast, for the one class passes into the other by every gradation in the magnitude of the mass or masses of which the meteor consists, and consequently in the grandeur of the phenomena which accompany its advent. If of the material composing the ordinary falling star we have never yet been able to recognize any vestiges as reaching the earth, of the meteorite, on the other hand, the mineral collections of Europe contain numerous carefully-collected specimens, which are the fragments that have escaped the fiery ordeal of the transit through our earth's atmosphere, and in these we recognize masses composed either of iron (siderites), or of stones (ærolites), or of a mixture of the two (siderolites). The phenomena associated with such falls of meteoric matter have been described in very similar language by those who have witnessed them in various parts of the world, and these accounts, whether coming from European observers or from Hindoo herdsmen (of which some were read by the lecturer), concur generally in the approach of the meteorite as a fiery mass, emanating from a cloud when seen by day and exploding often with successive detonations that are heard over a great extent of country, even in certain cases at points more than 60 miles distant, but finally reaching the earth with a velocity little higher than what might be due to the motion of a falling body. Externally these meteoric masses are generally hot when they fall; sometimes, however, they are not so; the discrepancies in the accounts being explained by one authenticated case in which the mass was internally intensely cold, though at first hot externally. The fallen meteorite is invariably coated with an incrustation, sometimes shining as an enamel, generally black, but occasionally colorless where the ærolite is free from ferrous silicates; and this incrustation is seen to have been formed in the atmosphere, since it is found coating surfaces of fragments that have been severed by the explosions in the air.

Aërolites frequently fall simultaneously in large numbers, many thousands of them being in such cases spread over a surface of the country some miles in extent; and such showers of stones seem to have entered the atmosphere as a group, though their numbers must subsequently have been greatly increased by the division accompanying their detonation.

The explanation of the incrustation and of the cloud left by the meteorite, or out of which it seems to emerge, is found in the transformation into heat of the energy actuating a body that enters our atmosphere with a motion of 12 to 40 miles a second. The velocity of the body is almost instantaneously arrested by the atmospheric resistance, and in a very few seconds the mass becomes, comparatively speaking, stationary. Its surface must, as a consequence, be immediately fused, and the melted matter would be flung off from it into the surrounding air, fresh surfaces continually affording new fused material to form the cloud of, so to say, siliceous spray that lingers along and around the path of the meteorite.

When the mass is small—and in the case of meteoric showers and ordinary falling stars it cannot exceed a few ounces, and may often be but a few grains—the whole material is thus consumed, and must ultimately fall as an unperceived, because widely-scattered, dust. The meteorite is the residue that survives this wasting action where the magnitude of the mass is more considerable. The cause of the violent and often successive explosions is probably to be sought in the expansion of the outer portions of the mass, while the interior retains the contracted volume due to the intense cold of space with which the meteorite enters the atmosphere.

From time to time these contending conditions of volume may, as in a Prince Rupert's drop, produce explosion, the heated shell in the case of the meteorite flying off in fragments from the internally cold inner core, which if sufficient velocity remain to the mass will undergo a recurrence of the same conditions of surface fusion and explosion. The loudness of the detonation is also probably enhanced by the simultaneous collapse of the air on the vacuum that would follow the rapidly-moving mass.

The pitted surface characteristic of meteorites probably bears witness to a similar effect of unequal dilatation operating more especially in the freshly-broken surfaces of the mass, small fragments splintering off in this way from the cold and brittle stone under the sudden influence of intense heat.

A remark made by Humboldt, that light and meteorites are the only sources of our knowledge regarding the universe external to our world, points to the true ground for our interest in the waifs and strays of extra-telluric matter that thus fall upon our globe.

In physical as well as in chemical characters aërolites resemble at the first aspect some terrestrial volcanic rocks.

The minerals of which they are composed are nearly entirely crystalline, as is evinced by the colors in polarized light of such as are transparent. These minerals are usually aggregated with slight cohesion, and they present in by far the greatest number of cases a peculiar spherular or "chondritic" structure.

In these the spherules are composed of similar minerals to those which enclose them, and even contain metallic iron sometimes in microscopically fine grains disseminated through them.

A section of an aërolite was exhibited by the microscope in which some of the spherules had been broken before being cemented by the surrounding mass, and in another fissures were seen which had been filled with a fused material after one side of the fissure had slidden along the other; facts pointing to events in the history of the meteorite subsequent to its first formation.

The chemical composition and the mineral constitution of aerolites were illustrated by tables showing the elements met with in these bodies, and the minerals in which they were distributed. The former comprised about one-third of the known elements; among them magnesium, iron, silicon, oxygen, and sulphur, were conspicuous; calcium, aluminium, nickel, carbon, and phosphorus, coming next in importance, the basic elements of most importance by their amount being the same as those which are found by spectroscopic analysis to be present in the sun—and in those stars which have been the best examined.

The minerals most frequent in aërolites besides nickeliferous iron or troilite (iron monosulphide) and graphite, are bronzite (a ferriferous enstatite) and olivine, both of the latter being essentially magnesium silicates. Augite and anorthite also occur (more particularly in the eukritic aerolites of Rose) and some minerals unknown in terrestrial mineralogy have also been met with; such are the different varieties of Schreibersite (phosphides of iron and nickel); calcium sulphide, asmanite (a form of silica crystallizing in the orthorhombic system and having the specific gravity of fused quartz), and a cubic mineral with the composition of labradorite. The crystalline form of bronzite was first determined from the crystals in a meteorite, and was found to confirm the conclusion Descloizeaux had arrived at as regards its system from observations on the distribution of the optic axes in the terrestrial bronzite and enstatite.

The question as to whence the meteorites come is one that we are not yet in a position to answer with certainty. The various hypotheses which suppose for them an origin in lunar volcanoes, or in our atmosphere, or again in a destroyed telluric satellite, or that would treat them as fragments of an original planet of which the asteroids are parts, or as masses ejected from the sun; all these hypotheses seem to be more or less precluded by the known velocities, the retrograde motion so frequently characterizing meteors and meteorites, or else by the chemical conditions that, for instance, are involved in the passage of the meteorite through the sun's chromosphere. Whether meteorites move or do not move in circumsolar orbits is at present impossible to say; because, while with our incomplete knowledge we cannot to-day attach the character of periodicity to any known class of meteorites, we are not justified in founding any conclusion on a negative result with so limited a foundation.

But even if all or some of them may have been, on their encountering the earth, members temporarily or permanently of the solar system, we may with considerable probability consider them as having originally entered our system from the interstellar spaces beyond it. Such at least must be our conclusion if we are to admit the unity of the whole class of phenomena of meteorites and falling stars. For, since the orbits of the two best-known meteoric streams, those namely of August and November, have been identified with the orbits of two comets, and since in regard to one of these (that of November) Leverrier has shown, with great probability, that as a meteoric cloud it entered and became a member of our system only some 1,700 years ago in consequence of the attraction of Uranus, while the August meteoric ring only differs in this respect from it, that it had at a much more remote period found an elliptic orbit round the sun: we are constrained on the assumption with which we started to recognize also in a meteorite a visitor from the regions of remote space. And so far as it goes, the observation by Secchi that the November falling stars exhibit the magnesium lines is in harmony with this view.

It may, however, further be said that the tendency of scientific conviction is in the direction of recognizing the collection toward and concentration in definite centres, of the matter of the universe, as a cosmical law, rather than the opposite supposition of such centres being the sources whence matter is dispersed into space. In the meteorites that fall on our earth (certainly in considerable numbers) we have to acknowledge the evidence of a vast and perpetual movement of space, about which we can only reason as part of a great feature in the universe which we have every ground for not supposing to be confined within the limits of the solar system.

That this matter, whether intercepted or not by the planets and the sun, should to an ever-increasing amount become entangled in the web of solar and planetary attraction, and that the same operation should be collecting round other stars and in distant systems such moving "clouds" of star-dust as have been treated by Schiaparelli, Leverrier, and other astronomers, or individual masses of wandering stone or iron, is a necessary deduction from the view that we have assumed regarding the tendency of cosmical matter to collect toward centres. But in order to trace the previous stages of the history of any meteorite, and, in particular, to determine the conditions under which its present constitution as a rock took its origin, we have only for our guide the actual record written on the meteoric mass itself; and it is in this direction that the mineralogist is now working.

But the progress is necessarily a gradual one. We may indeed assert that the meteorites we know have, probably all of them, been originally formed under conditions from which the presence of water or of free oxygen to the amount requisite to oxidize entirely the elements present were excluded; for this is proved by the nature of the minerals constituting the meteorites, and by the way in which the metallic iron is distributed through them.

And one suggestive and significant fact remains to be alluded to; the presence, namely, in some few meteorites of combinations of hydrogen and carbon, which if met with in a terrestrial mineral would with little hesitation be assigned to an organic origin. A few grains were exhibited to the audience of such a body, crystallized from ether, which solvent had extracted it to the amount of about 0.25 per cent, from six ounces of the Cold Bokkveldt meteorite.

Similar substances have been extracted by Wohler, Roscoe, and other chemists, from this and other meteorites. It was, however, observed, as pointing to the probability of the comparatively porous meteoric stone having in this case taken up the hydrocarbon as a substance extraneous to it (possibly when in the state of a vapor), that ether extracted it entirely from the solid lumps of the meteorite; pulverization not in any way adding to the amount obtained, or facilitating in any appreciable degree the separation of the substance.

  1. Read before the Royal Institution of Great Britain.