If you’ve always wanted to own some stardust, pay a visit to the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum this summer.
The Falcon Heights museum has a new exhibit about the tons of tiny cosmic particles falling on the Earth from outer space every day and a Minnesota man who has become one of the world’s leading experts on how to find them.
Scott Peterson is a 37-year-old stay-at-home dad from New Hope, an engineering student and a combat veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s also a citizen scientist specializing in finding micrometeorites in urban settings.
Micrometeorites are specks of some of the oldest matter in existence, typically less than a millimeter in size but billions of years old. They fly through space at speeds of up to 160,000 miles per hour, with an estimated 60 tons of the stuff raining down on the Earth daily.
But those tiny alien invaders usually land unnoticed, hidden among the dirt, dust and man-made grit already on the Earth.
Until recently, scientists believed that micrometeorites could only be found in pristine environments in remote places like the Antarctic.
But in the past couple of years, Peterson has become one of the few people in the world to teach himself how to find micrometeorites in an urban environment.
He’s gotten permission to get on about 20 flat roofs of buildings in the metro area — churches, high schools, colleges, restaurants, even the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Using powerful magnets, he searches for metallic particles on the roofs, then painstakingly sorts, sifts and examines the little specks under a microscope, looking for the telltale features of material that is not of this world.
Peterson said he’s so far found about 1,000 micrometeorites. His finds have been verified using an electron microprobe housed at the University of Minnesota. He’s sent samples to Germany, Italy, Norway and Canada for research and photography.
Last month, the Bell Museum opened a photo exhibit about Peterson’s finds called “City Stardust: Micrometeorites in Our Own Backyard.”
Holly Menninger, the Bell’s director of public engagement and science learning, said the exhibit is a good example of the value of citizen scientists.
“He’s making a real contribution to the field,” she said of Peterson. “His enthusiasm for micrometeorites is infectious.”
Parke Kunkle, a retired astronomy teacher who was on an advisory board at the Bell, encouraged Peterson, a former student, to get his micrometeorites in front of the public.
“This is the original material of the solar system,” Kunkle said.
To the naked eye, the micrometeorites are barely visible specks. But the high-resolution and high-magnification photographic images in the Bell exhibit reveal stark, otherworldly planetoids, scarred and shaped by their journey through space.
“It’s both artistic and scientific,” Kunkle said.
There’s even a chance to win a Peterson micrometeorite. The museum is holding a drawing to win a .2 mm micrometeorite that Peterson found in St. Louis Park in May 2018.
The micrometeorite exhibit runs until Sept. 8. It is part of a yearlong Bell celebration of space science to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing. See bellmuseum.umn.edu.