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Meteorite moves to Flag
Astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker talks with Drew Barringer about the Verkamp Meteorite during its unveiling at Lowel Observatory Friday afternoon. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun/Order this photo at http://photos.azdailysun.com)

The 535-pound fragment of the meteorite that formed Meteor Crater lay undisturbed for 49,000 years before being discovered in 1903 by mining engineer Daniel M. Barringer.

Then, the fragment spent more than a century at the Verkamp's curio shop at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Now, the fragment has found a new home at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. The meteorite was unveiled by members of the Barringer and Verkamp families during a ceremony at the observatory Friday afternoon.

The move occurred in the wake of the closure of the Verkamp's store, said Kevin Schindler, outreach manager for the observatory. When news of the upcoming closing spread last year, Barringer's grandson, Drew, approached the observatory to ask if the meteorite would find a home at the science facility.

"After we wiped the drool off our lips, we said, 'Yes, we believe so,'" Schindler said, laughing.

The only stipulation the Verkamp and Barringer families had was that the fragment would be put on display and not placed into storage, Schindler said. So, observatory staff decided the best place for the display would be in the visitor center lobby.

"Millions of people have seen this throughout the years while at the Grand Canyon," Schindler said, including presidents and foreign dignitaries. Now, the fragment will be one of the first items the observatory's 80,000 visitors a year will see.

During the ceremony, Drew Barringer said he was approached by the Verkamps to help find the fragment a new home. The logical fit appeared to be the observatory and the advisory board agreed.

"I think it's terrific the Verkamp history can continue here at Lowell and visitors can continue to see the Big Rock," Barringer said.

Stephen Verkamp, former U.S. Magistrate Judge in Flagstaff, said he liked to call the fragment the "sky stone" or "sky rock."

With brother John (former state senator) looking on, Verkamp had the gathered crowd laughing with tales of people trying to steal the fragment, only to get caught and forced to give the fragment back to the Verkamp family.

As to how the Verkamp family ended up with the fragment, Verkamp said, "We don't quite know." Therefore, the true ownership of the piece has always been the center of a joking and fun dispute between Verkamp and Barringer. Now, all has been hashed out.

Verkamp said he expected a major engineering feat to move the fragment. But Ralph Nye, the mechanical guru for the observatory who specializes in designing instrumentation for the observatory, made short work of the move.

The fragment ties in well with much of the observatory's research in Earth-approaching asteroids, Schindler said. It was actually Gene Shoemaker, Flagstaff-based astrogeologist, who helped definitively conclude that Meteor Crater (often called Barringer Crater) was the result of a meteorite strike.

The crater, still owned by the Barringer family, is also one of the easiest to access and is the best preserved in the world, Schindler said.

Shoemaker's widow, Carolyn, a member of the observatory's advisory board, was present during the unveiling ceremony. The two, along with David Levy, are also known for the discovery of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that smashed into Jupiter in 1994.

The crater created by the meteorite that left the fragment discovered by Barringer's grandfather is about 4,000 feet in diameter. The crater is 570 feet deep and has a rim that rises 150 feet above the plain surrounding it.

Scientists estimate the nickel-iron meteorite that created the crater was about 150 feet wide and traveling at about 28,000 miles an hour when it hit, creating a blast about 150 times the strength of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

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The fragment at the observatory was found near Canyon Diablo, not far from the crater site.

As for the meteorite fragment's new home, Schindler said it won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

"It precedes us by 49,000-plus years," Schindler said. "And we're expecting it to be here for a long, long time — as long as Lowell Observatory is here."

Larry Hendricks can be reached at 556-2262 or lhendricks@azdailysun.com.

What: Barringer-Verkamp meteor fragment display

Where: Lowell Observatory, 1400 W. Mars Hill Road, visitor center

Hours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday - Saturday; 5:30 - 10 p.m., Monday - Saturday

Admission: $6 adults; $5 seniors, AAA, students; $3 ages 5-17; free under 5 and members

Info: 774-3358

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