Touching outer space

Lauren Bordelon, religion teacher at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans, left, and Joseph Varco, science teacher at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, New Jersey, compare meteorites with earth rocks during the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Lauren Bordelon, religion teacher at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans, left, and Joseph Varco, science teacher at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, New Jersey, compare meteorites with earth rocks during the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

TUCSON, Ariz. —  Yesterday I played with rocks.

Not just any rocks mind you, but rocks from space that are an estimated 4.5 billion years old.

I have played with rocks as an adult, skipping them off the surface of Lake Erie on a calm summer day. And there was the time I joined right in to sift stones and dirt when my wife, Chris, arranged for our sons’ home school group to work at an archaeological dig at the former Civil War-era prison for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio.

But holding pieces of space stuff in my hands far surpassed those experiences.

Those of us at Day 2 of the Faith and Astronomy Workshop sponsored by the Vatican Observatory yesterday had the opportunity to examine several types of meteorites assembled in kits by Larry and Nancy Lebofsky, a husband-wife team who share the joys of astronomy with groups throughout the Tucson area.

Both are friends of Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. Like Brother Consolmagno, Larry Lebofsky is an expert on meteorites and since retiring as senior research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, he has served as senior education specialist at the Planetary Science Institute.

Nancy Lebofsky has worked as an instructional specialist, coordinator at Steward Observatory. She leads programs on celestial storytelling. Their goal is to make astronomy fun and interesting and to get people to think about the vast universe beyond Earth.

Examining a small box of rocks with Father John Schrader, pastor of Peace of Christ Parish in Rochester, New York, I was able to handle a heavy iron-rich meteorite and smaller chondrites cut from larger specimens, including one that was discovered in northwest Africa.

One of the chondrites contained chondrules, round grains that form as molten droplets in space before being accreted to a parent asteroid. The second had been moderately heated so that it no longer showed evidence of chondrules, but iron flakes were visible.

The kit also contained a round deep black tektite, an Earth rock that was melted in a hypervelocity impact by a meteorite crashing into Earth. Some of the rock can be ejected into the air — most probably above the atmosphere — and as the molten rock falls back to Earth it cools and hardens into a round or flat shape.

Different rocks from Arizona and elsewhere were included in the kit to provide a comparison to the samples from space.

Larry Lebofsky also passed around encased samples of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over the Russian city in February 2013, damaging 7,200 buildings and injuring 1,500 people.

Yep, it was quite a day playing with rocks. At least for a while I was a kid again.

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