The Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan possesses the largest collection of meteorites in Québec and one of the most important in Canada. Begun in a very modest way, that collection today is one of the Planetarium’s major assets.
Why collect meteorites
Meteorites are stones that have come from outer space. They’re the only extraterrestrial objects that astronomers can touch and handle. The vast majority of meteorites are asteroid debris fallen to Earth. In rare cases, they can originate from the Moon or even the planet Mars.
The study of meteorites has demonstrated that these are primitive bodies formed early in the history of the solar system, about 4.5 billion years ago. Meteorites therefore provide us with information on the way in which planets formed and how life appeared on Earth.
The Planetarium’s meteorite collection
The first of the Planetarium’s meteorite fragments were purchased in 1992 with the goal of explaining these space pebbles to the public at events. At the time there were only three fragments.
A few years later, on June 14, 1994, a meteorite fell at Saint-Robert, near Sorel. The bang was enormous. And the excitement surrounding it was such that we decided to mount a temporary exhibit on meteorites the following year. For the occasion we presented a fragment of each meteorite that had fallen in Canada.
Since then we’ve acquired numerous other fragments, assembling a collection worthy of the name, with close to 450 fragments originating from 200 different meteorites. All the major categories of meteorite are represented. And we’re proud to make nearly fifteen percent of the collection accessible to the public by way of permanent and temporary exhibitions.
In the Planetarium collection we find samples of three of the five Québec meteorites and twelve of the seventy-three Canadian meteorites.
Our three Québec meteorites are a source of special pride. There’s the Saint-Robert meteorite, of course, of which we have two complete and intact fragments. But we’re also proud to be the only ones to possess fragments of the Penouille and Chibougamau meteorites.
The Penouille meteorite was discovered by an eight-year-old boy in 1985 on the beach at Pointe de Penouille in the Gaspé Peninsula. It was after the Saint-Robert meteorite fell that the then young man turned up at the Planetarium to find out if his stone was a meteorite, and identification turned out to be positive. To date, that’s the only time a visitor has brought us a real meteorite, despite the significant number of identification requests we receive each year.
The point is, it’s very difficult to find a meteorite in nature, because they’re extremely rare and difficult to spot. So don’t get discouraged if your exceptional stone isn’t a meteorite. But if one day that’s the case, the discovery could be worth its weight in gold…besides being a fabulous story to tell.
My special favorite: the Imilac meteorite
This meteorite is the pallasite type, which is a meteorite consisting of an iron-nickel matrix in which olivine crystals are found. Pallasites are among the rarest meteorites, accounting for less than one percent of known meteorites.
In the case of the Imilac meteorite, the olivine crystals lend them a wonderful “heavenly” beauty. We’re also lucky to have a good-sized slice, which allows us to appreciate it fully.