From Our Vault: 1897 Meteorite Recovery

Photograph by Robert E. Peary, National Geographic

On Friday, asteroid 2012 DA14 will buzz Earth. Experts estimate that it will miss us by about 27,700 kilometers (17,200 miles)—closer than most satellites orbit the Earth's surface.

If it hits, which experts assure us it won't, it wouldn't be the first big hunk of space material to end up on Earth.The American Museum of Natural History in New York lays claim to the biggest meteorite currently in captivity.

That meteorite is composed of iron and is 11 feet (3 meters) long, 7 feet (2 meters) high, 6 feet (1.8 meters) thick, and weighs 34 tons.

Explorer Robert Peary brought it back from Cape York, Greenland, in 1897. He was looking for a way to the North Pole and learned about three meteorites from the local Inuit people. The local tradition held that they were an Inuit woman and her dog and tent that Tornarsuk, the Evil Spirit, had hurled from the sky.

The Inuit had been hacking off pieces of the galactic iron for about a thousand years to make knives and other pointed objects, said curator Genevieve LeMoine at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College.

By the time Peary got to them, the woman had lost much of her bulk to tools, but the tent was still mammoth.

Peary called this largest meteorite Ahnighito, hisdaughter's middle name. The local Inuit called it Saviksoah, or "the great iron."

The locals were getting most of their tools from trade at that point, so Peary thought it would be okay to take their meteorites back with him to New York and sell them to a museum to fund further expeditions.

He tried to move them in 1896. He succeeded with the other two but couldn't get the largest onto the boat.

He wrote in his book Northward Over the "Great Ice": "The inherent deviltry of inanimate objects was never more strikingly illustrated than in this monster. Had the matter been a subject of study for weeks by the celestial forge-master, I doubt that any shape could have been devised that would have been any more completely ill suited for handling in any way, either rolling or sliding or lifting."

Here it's being loaded a year later with winches on board the whaler Hope.

—Johnna Rizzo

Published February 15, 2013

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From Our Vault: 1897 Meteorite Recovery