Norton County
Named "Norton County" because of where it landed, this meteorite fell in Kansas in 1948. It's one of the centerpieces in the Meteorite Museum's collection.
Credit: Steve Carr

At the University of New Mexico, it houses a collection like none other with specimens dating back 4.5 billion years. Gone are the old burlap-covered walls and outdated lighting, which have been replaced with sleek gray paint and energy-saving LED lights and new display cases featuring a futuristic design that makes any display inviting.  

In this particular museum collection, meteorites appear to be flying through space, much like they do in our solar system. The colors of newly-restored pallasites are highlighted by vivid backlighting. And, for the first time, a number of lunar and Martian meteorites are now on exhibit.

It’s all part of the renovation that took place at the UNM Meteorite Museum housed in Northrop Hall in the UNM Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. A grand re-opening for the Meteorite Museum, was held recently to celebrate the first renovation since its opening in 1974.

New display cases featuring a futuristic design gives viewers the feel of meteorites flying through space.

The Meteorite Museum includes dozens of meteorites from the extensive collection of the Institute of Meteoritics (IOM). The highlight of the museum is a one-ton piece of the stony meteorite known as Norton County that fell in Kansas in 1948.

“The museum is a representation of our collection – which is about a 1,000 unique meteorite types,” said Carl Agee, director of the Meteorite Museum. “They range from ones like the Norton County meteorite that fell in Kansas in 1948 to recent finds that we’ve been able to bring back from the Sahara desert; meteorites that are coming from Mars and the moon for example.

The new design also allows for showcasing a rotating collection of specimens on loan from noted meteorite collectors and dealers. A large flat-screen monitor at the east end of the museum features video interviews with Agee and IOM scientists discussing the collection, their work and the history of the museum.

Agee came to the institute from NASA in 2002. He also is a Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and teaches courses about the Solar System and the planet Mars.

“They are a great teaching tool,” Agee said. “They allow students to get a hands on experience. They are also a great outreach tool, a way for UNM to reach the community not only in Albuquerque, but nationwide. Meteorites are tangible specimens from the solar system. Many of them are from the beginning of time, from the origin of the solar system. Some of our carbonaceous chondrites are some of the most ancient materials we know of dating back 4.5 billion years.”

UNM founded the IOM in 1944 in response Professor Frederick C. Leonard’s plea for an institution for research on meteorites in 1941. The IOM was the first in the world to be devoted exclusively to research on meteorites. The first director of IOM was Lincoln LaPaz who also held a position as head of the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at UNM. He significantly contributed to the meteorite collection that has been continuously added on to. Click here to read more on the history of IOM.

(l. to r.): Meteorite Museum Director Carl Agee, State Senator William H. Payne and UNM Earth and Planetary Sciences Chair Laura Crossey cut the ribbon at the grand re-opening of the UNM Meteorite Museum.

The original objectives of the Institute were to promote the recovery, exhibition and scientific study of meteorites, the advancement of pure sciences such as the study of meteors and practical applications of such knowledge.

Much of the funding for the museum’s renovation came from grants by the State of New Mexico, led by the efforts of State Senator William H. Payne. The UNM Provost’s Office also contributed to the renovation.

For more information, visit the Meteorite Museum.