“My parents recall taking me to Meteor Crater in Arizona as a young child… they say that even at age 5, I knew exactly what caused the crater,” she said.
Latimer has a long-time fascination with meteorites—space objects that pelt the Earth, depositing valuable data from the solar system on a daily basis—collecting this cosmic debris for over a decade.
“One year as I was looking for unique Christmas gifts online, I was astonished to find that meteorites were available for the public to buy,” she said. “My computer allows me to view collections from around the world, find out what is new, and converse with fellow collectors, dealers and scientists.”
Final mission. Kīhei resident and Kahului Public Library Children’s Librarian Tracy Latimer, a space enthusiast and long-time meteorite collector, was on cloud nine when she won tickets to attend the launch of the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis on July 8, which marked the end of the 30-year program. “It was a fantastic experience,” she said.
Photo: Mary Kate Smith
She is now the proud owner of meteorite specimens from all seven continents and more than 300 unique finds.
Scientists classify meteorites into groups according to their structure, chemical and isotopic composition and mineralogy.
“Meteorites come in three basic flavors—iron, stony-iron and stony,” Latimer said. “There are further special sub-groups depending on origin and composition.”
Iron meteorites are sorted by their crystal structure types and metallic composition. Stony-irons are mixes of stone and iron, and come in two sub-groups—pallasites and mesosiderites. Pallasites are translucent olivine crystals in a web of metal. Mesosiderites have less crystal and rockier components. Stony meteorites contain tiny grains called “chondrules” that were formed at the beginning of the solar system.
“Ideally, I’d like pieces from every unique fall or find, but that isn’t in my budget,” Latimer said. She has been working on collecting a representative piece from each specimen type. “My first meteorite was a skeletal Imilac [a meteorite found in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile in 1822] with all the olivine weathered away; however, I find it hard to turn down nice pallasites, which are as beautiful as stained glass windows,” she said.
Building a meteorite collection can be a great challenge and adventure.
“I’ve only been able to attend one trade show, but came away wishing I could go to more,” said Latimer.
Many of her purchases have been on eBay, although if she wants a particular meteorite, she has more luck looking at individual dealer’s stock.
“Sometimes I will trade or sell off a smaller piece to upgrade, if it’s possible,” she said.
“I’d love to participate in a hunt for meteorites sometime, but I’d have to go some distance to search for a strewn field, which is a roughly oval pattern where meteorites land,” said Latimer.
The rocks in Hawai‘i closely resemble meteorites. Their iron content is even high enough to fool a metal detector, which makes visual inspection not too useful in the islands.
“Couple that with a climate that is hard on metal and I wouldn’t have much luck finding them here,” she said. “However, I do own a small piece of ‘Honolulu,’ which is the name of one of two meteorites that did fall in our state.”
“I am a big advocate of getting kids interested in science, and find meteorites are a good tangible way to get them started,” said Latimer, who provides outstanding books and resources at the library. She has given several talks locally about meteorites to elementary and middle school students, and at the University of Hawai‘i Institute for Astronomy (UH IfA).
“Once the students realize that the rock they are handing around came from outer space, they are fascinated and the questions start to fly,” she said. “I keep some small specimens of unclassified meteorites handy to give out to interested students, and have one on my desk in the library.”
Recently, Latimer loaned out some of her lunar meteorites to a geologist at IfA for comparison studies of moon dust from the Apollo missions. Meteorites we find on Earth may have originated on the moon or Mars, or even in the asteroid belt, having been ejected into space by large asteroid impacts.
Latimer also works closely with IfA Astronomer and Education Outreach Specialist Dr. James (“JD”) Armstrong. Periodic outreach programs are held in the library, where Dr. Armstrong provides remote access to the Faulkes two-meter telescope on Haleakalā.
“We stream live pictures from the telescope down to the library and allow students to ‘drive’ the telescope,” she said.
It is entirely fitting that Latimer, a committed space enthusiast, actually won tickets to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to view the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis on July 8.
“It was a fantastic experience,” she said. “The sound of the launch penetrated through my whole body. Wow!