Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites
The Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites explores essential questions about the origins of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago by examining meteorites, rocky fragments from space that reveal clues about the formation and evolution of the Sun and planets.
The hall is divided into three sections, which focus on the origins of the solar system, the processes involved in building planets, and meteorite impacts, with details about impact sites in Kansas, South Africa, and other locations around the world. More than 130 scientifically significant meteorites are displayed here, including the 34-ton Cape York Meteorite, also known as Ahnighito. In addition, the hall features rare Mars specimens and Moon rocks collected in the Apollo missions of the 1970s.
[View of Earth from above]
DENON EBEL (Curator, Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences): The Earth is going around the Sun at about 30 kilometers per second. We’re all moving really fast.
[Bright flashes in the atmosphere]
EBEL: And just like a windshield of a car hitting bugs, we hit rocks, space rocks.
[Flaring comet passes by]
EBEL: Many of these are leftovers from comets dropping little breadcrumbs behind them. And these paths, as we cross them, make meteor showers.
[Bright streaks in night sky]
EBEL: Meteorites are bigger rocks.
[Rock heads to Earth, heats up in atmosphere]
EBEL: They come in through the atmosphere.
[Rock explodes, continues smoke-trailed trajectory]
EBEL: They’re going very, very fast.
[Scientist-narrator speaks from museum gallery]
EBEL: And if they come to the Earth and they hit the Earth and we pick them up as a rock, then they're a meteorite.
[Meteorite specimens appear on screen. Title text: “Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History”]
EBEL: What do meteorites tell us? They tell us about the formation of the Solar System. They tell us about planets. Our only samples of other planets are meteorites. And they tell us about the dynamic history of the solar system through the craters left by impacting meteorites.
[Pan across Hall of Meteorites, then pan across “Origins” section of hall.]
EBEL: Through the samples in the Hall, we tell the stories about these topics. For example, if you look at the section on the origins of the Solar System, the Allende meteorite that was observed to fall in Mexico in 1969,
[Photo of Allende meteorite on display in gallery]
EBEL: …turned out to be a very important rock
[Round pebble-like component of Allende meteorite is highlighted]
EBEL: …because it contains calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions and they're big enough that we could do isotopic dating and come up with an age of the oldest rocks formed in the solar system,
[Curator Denton Ebel speaks from gallery]
EBEL: …which is 4,567.8 million years—so, four-and-a-half-billion, roughly.
[Pan across Planet section of Hall of Meteorites]
EBEL: When planets grow big enough to melt, they differentiate into a core and a mantle, like the Earth.
[Cutout in model of Earth shows iron core]
EBEL: But we haven’t actually seen the deep interior of the Earth. We can’t drill down to the core of the Earth. So, we infer the Earth’s core by looking at the density of the Earth itself. We know there must be a very dense core.
[Model of small planet with cutout showing similar core]
EBEL: The study of meteorites fits in there because early, very early in the solar system, little planetary bodies formed cores.
[Small planet destroyed by meteorite impact, pieces of crust and iron core fly toward viewer]
EBEL: And in our Planetary section of the Hall, pieces of those kinds of bodies—early planets — are recorded in the iron meteorites.
[Iron meteorites on display in gallery]
EBEL: And so, studying those rocks gives us evidence for what is actually deep in the Earth that we can’t sample in any other way.
[Map of gallery, highlighted section: Impacts]
EBEL: Asteroids are in the asteroid belt between roughly Mars and Jupiter.
[Line drawing of asteroid paths]
EBEL: But there are lots of asteroids that cross the Earth’s orbit, and those are called near-Earth asteroids. And one of the topics we explore in the Hall is, in fact, the hazards that meteorites pose.
[Large meteor flies toward Earth]
EBEL: If we have big objects hit the Earth, large enough to make craters, then we start to think about hazards. If it lands in the ocean, it makes big waves.
EBEL: If it lands on land, it throws up a lot of dust.
[After impact, debris flies high into atmosphere]
EBEL: That’s not good. There are a lot of people thinking about stopping asteroids from hitting the Earth. But it’s a tricky business. And knowing about the asteroids proves critical.
[Spacecraft appears beside an asteroid in space]
EBEL: So, for example, if an asteroid reflects a lot of sunlight, then the sunlight’s bouncing off of it, giving it energy and pushing it in one direction.
[Sunlight shines on asteroid and spacecraft]
EBEL: And so, when you talk about deflecting asteroids, one way to do it might be to paint the asteroid with something reflective so the Sun pushes on it harder.
[Spacecraft sprays silver paint on asteroid]
EBEL: And if you do that early enough, then you can deflect the rock. So, the way that the rocks interact with light,
[Painted asteroid bypasses Earth]
EBEL: …which goes by the term spectroscopy, is really important. Spectroscopy also gives you clues to the minerals that are present on the surface of whatever rock you’re looking at.
[Spacecraft travels toward asteroid]
EBEL: For example, because we were in orbit around the asteroid Vesta for two years, we have close-up spectroscopy.
[Orbiting spacecraft takes images of Vesta’s surface]
EBEL: We know how those rocks on Vesta reflect sunlight in different wavelengths. And we can look at the meteorites in the case about Vesta,
[Vesta meteorites on display in museum gallery]
EBEL: …and they have the same spectrum. So we can match Vesta to these rocks.
[Spacecraft orbits asteroid]
EBEL: And one of the future and important aspects of meteorite science is, in fact, connecting specific meteorites to specific asteroids.
[Curator Denton Ebel speaks from gallery]
EBEL: Meteorites are samples sent to us by processes in the Solar System over which we have no control. Sample return, we control.
[Spectators watch a rocket liftoff]
ANNOUNCER: And liftoff of OSIRUS-REx, it’s seven-year mission to boldly go to the asteroid Bennu and back.
EBEL: Sample-return missions are really difficult. They require a spacecraft to rendezvous with a target, collect material from the surface of the target,
[Small spacecraft lands gently on asteroid]
EBEL: …and bring it back to Earth.
[Diagram shows how spacecraft collects dust from surface]
EBEL: So, one of the things that we’re going for with sample return is that material that hasn’t been through that very brutal process of entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed.
[Spacecraft lifts off from asteroid, returns to Earth’s atmosphere, drops sample capsule, parachute slows capsule’s landing]
EBEL: So, when we return samples from a comet, samples of the solar wind, samples from the darkest asteroids, which have the most carbon near the surface, which is going to tell us about origin-of-life-type chemistry—these are the important things and important targets for research.
[Ebel in office, looking at image on computer and speaking with graduate student]
EBEL: So, if this thing formed in space, then why does the sulfur exist here…
[Curator Denton Ebel continues narration]
EBEL: The American Museum of Natural History is about science. It’s about communicating science. But it’s also about doing science.
[Collections staff member opens drawer of specimens]
EBEL: And we have a great meteorite collection that we study to understand what these rocks can tell us.
SAMUEL ALPERT (Museum Specialist, Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences): My research is focused on a group of meteorites called the ordinary chondrites, meteorites that are very primitive, and their component parts are unaltered since they formed in the early Solar System.
[Alpert in lab prepares small specimen]
ALPERT: When you’re cutting a meteorite, you always want to make sure that you’re minimizing loss of the sample.
ALPERT: And so, everything we do in the cutting process and in the preparation process is to avoid that.
[Another graduate student prepares a thin-slice sample]
MARINA GEMMA (Graduate Student, Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences): My research focuses on the spectral properties of meteorites.
[Looks at sample through high-tech microscope]
GEMMA: If we can match the spectral properties of the meteorites we have here with the spectral features of asteroids in the asteroid belt, then we can determine the parent bodies that these meteorites came from.
[Another graduate student takes a tiny sample from a dish]
KIM FENDRICH (Microscope Specialist, Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences): I’m studying samples of comet dust collected by the NASA Stardust mission and returned to Earth in 2006. Comets are some of the most primitive remnants left over from the early stages of Solar System formation.
[Looks at sample dust on a computer screen]
FENDRICH: They can give us clues to the environmental conditions at the time, and also help to answer some of those existential questions like, how did the Sun and the planets come to be? How did we get here?
[Curator Denton Ebel speaks from meteorites gallery]
EBEL: In the Museum, you can find meteorites not just in this hall, but in the Hall of Planet Earth
[Photo of meteorites in that gallery]
EBEL: …and in the Hall of the Universe,
[Photos of meteorites in that gallery]
EBEL: …because meteorites give us clues to the formation of the Earth, the deep interior of the Earth, and also to the larger galaxy of which this Solar System is a part.
[Screen fades to black, credits appear]
[Onscreen text reads:
AMNH / J. Morfoot
AMNH / L. Moustakerski
Director of Photography
AMNH / S. Krasinski
Footage and additional animations courtesy of
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center]
[AMNH logo appears]
A scale model of the Meteor Crater of Arizona, also known as the Barringer Crater and considered the world’s best-preserved impact crater, is featured with a cutaway section to illustrate how the crater was formed. The identification of this feature as an impact site in the early 20th century changed the way scientists thought about the solar system as researchers began to argue that impacts might have cratered the Moon and other planets.
This hall is included with any admission.