Each year, the Earth is hit by about 6,100 meteorites, or about 17 every day. A new Maine museum that houses the largest collection of rocks from the moon and Mars is giving Colby students the chance to study their geologic history.
That history tells the story of the origin of our solar system, when, 4.6 billion years ago, a cloud of gas and dust called a solar nebula formed the sun and a group of planetary bodies, including the Earth. Fragments of materials from planets and moons, along with rocky debris called asteroids, orbit the sun in the asteroid belt for millions of years before eventually colliding with Earth’s surface.
This has fascinated Elana Alevy ’24 since childhood, prompting the Massachusetts native to start exploring geology in high school. “I was always really interested in the outdoors and looking at rocks, and looking at landscapes,” the geology major and astronomy minor said. “I realized that geology could become a career, it could become my future, and it wasn’t just a class at school.”
Over Jan Plan 2022, the student-scientist applied her skillset and expanded her passions as the first geology student from Colby to intern at the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, a newly opened world-class museum and research facility in Bethel.
“It’s not just a museum where people go to look at meteorites,” said Tasha Dunn, associate professor of geology at Colby. “It’s a place where scientists can do cutting-edge research on meteorites as well.”
The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum houses an internationally renowned meteorite collection. Yet, countless meteorites still remain in boxes, awaiting study. That’s where Colby students come in.
Dunn, a planetary geologist whose research is focused on asteroids and small planetary bodies, sees a potential partnership between Colby and the museum to develop a modern research institute for meteorites in Maine. Dunn is spearheading an innovative collaboration to help more Colby students gain access to learning opportunities by interning at the museum, which opened in 2019.
She is also developing a semester-long project for her Earth Materials course where students will analyze and describe an unclassified meteorite from the museum’s collection by using a new scanning electron microscope that was installed in the spring after the Geology Department won an NSF instrument grant.
The back-scattered electron detector on Colby’s instrument will be used to obtain high-resolution images of textures, such as mineral shapes, sizes, and abundances. The energy dispersive spectrometer will be used to identify the minerals present in the sample, Dunn said. These meteorites will then be submitted to the Meteoritical Society for official classification and naming. “The opportunity to officially describe and classify a meteorite is a very unique experience that would only be available to students here at Colby,” Dunn added.
Barbra Barrett, executive director of the museum, agreed. “The possibility of a substantive meteorite research program so close to home is a huge opportunity to further the next generation of critical thinkers and scientists,” she said. “We hope this relationship provides the foundation for a meteoritics research program that would include hosting a Jan Plan student every year.”
At the museum, Alevy helped prepare and classify several meteorites, unraveling stories from millions of miles away and billions of years ago. Alevy first sliced into the samples using a trim saw and a wire saw, which are both coated in diamonds to penetrate the rock easily. Then she used diamond polishing pads to smooth the surface.
For initial analysis, Alevy put the polished samples in a small X-ray machine to obtain bulk compositional data, or a preliminary idea of how rare the meteorite is and what group, such as lunar, it belongs to, she said.
For more in-depth data collection, she used a scanning electron microscope to look at different minerals within the sample by driving precise electron beams into areas that appeared to have diverse mineral components. The instrument allowed Alevy to quantify how much of each element was present in a given area. Using this device, she obtained compositional maps, which highlight the presence of different elements that can’t be discerned from the naked eye.
Classification allows scientists to identify a meteorite’s origin or parent body, such as the moon or Mars, and can also reveal much about a rock’s history, such as the amount of heat and pressure it experienced during formation. “That was a really intensive process,” Alevy said, “but it was fascinating to understand how the sample gets lab-ready.”
Classifying meteorites is highly unusual for undergraduates, said Dunn. She thought the museum would be the perfect fit for Alevy, her current research assistant, because “she has a deep passion for planetary science and an aptitude for research. She is going to be an outstanding scientist one day.”
Outside the laboratory, Alevy explored the behind-the-scenes of the museum by assisting with photography and displays and by interacting with guests. She was mentored by scientists, curators, and other staff members. “I was directly applying my classroom knowledge and my research experience into what became a very personal and independent project.”
As she furthers her career as a planetary geologist, Alevy is equipped with an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the field within and beyond the lab. “It’s been very impactful working with science that can be published or displayed for the public,” she said. “And to me, that’s really important—doing science for other people to appreciate and learn about.”
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