Commentary | A Rock Star in Vienna

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This past New Year’s Eve, my fiancee and I visited Vienna, a city famous for music that has special significance for us, since we met at a Viennese waltz lesson in, of all places, the French Embassy here in Washington. We’ve been to Vienna several times where we attended several different formal balls, held inside the beautifully ornate Hofburg Palace or Rathaus (City Hall). With a full orchestra playing Strauss waltzes, and a few thousand guests, these events have a magical quality unlike anywhere else. This time we came across the Museum of Natural History in Vienna.

The museum opened in 1889 and has about 30 million items, including the fascinating Venus of Willendorf, a tiny, exaggerated stone carving more than 25,000 years old — one of the oldest representations of the human form ever found. Among other items, the Museum of Natural History has, by its own claim, “the world’s largest and oldest meteorite collection on display,” with nearly 1,100 items. The collection was started in 1778 and, following renovations, the meteorite hall recently reopened on Nov. 13, just a month or so before we arrived.

The undisputed star of the collection is “a spectacular new addition” — the Tissint meteorite, or, more particularly, one of the largest intact fragments of the Tissint meteorite, weighing just under a kilogram. Tissint is from Mars.

The Tissint meteorite, named for a nearby village closest to the impact site in Morocco, was observed to fall at 2 a.m. on July 18, 2011. Tissint is only the fifth martian meteorite to have been witnessed, the last in 1962 in Nigeria. Through an involved set of transactions, it arrived at the Museum of Natural History in 2012. On June 26, 2012, the Austrian Times reported that the museum spent nearly “half a million to acquire a rare Martian meteorite from a private collector.”

There was a line of visitors at the main entrance to the museum when we visited one Saturday afternoon. There was another line of people in front of a small glass case in one corner of the meteorite hall containing no less than six martian meteorites, including the largest one — Tissint. The subtlety was stunning.

Unless one was focused on the shiny black fusion crust and internal sparkly features, formed by the collision that ejected the sample from the martian surface 700,000 years ago, one might find this small rock unremarkable. It’s about the size of a baseball and otherwise dull gray where the crust is broken. But black glass inside the rock was formed when surrounding rock and minerals melted during a high shock event. The black glass contains elements not found in surrounding rock, including an isotope of nitrogen, a signature characteristic of the martian atmosphere. We know this from measurements made on the martian surface by robotic landers.

At the Museum of Natural History, people were lined up to take pictures of Tissint and read the materials explaining its significance. For a long time, flashes were going off every few seconds. Not only that, the museum gift shop was selling tiny pieces of the meteorite, and they weren’t cheap. This was a non-human rock star of the most famous kind.

What explains this incongruity in the dead of winter, in a city famous for music and culture, and why would this museum spend a small fortune to create this exhibit? The answer says a lot about our space program and a lot about our choice for exploration.

The answer is Tissint is culture. It’s not just science.

The public is fascinated with Mars. The museum knew this would be a huge draw, and it is. And this view is not unique to Vienna, it’s worldwide. On Oct. 14 in New York, when the two largest pieces of Tissint were sold at auction, the largest piece, weighing about 1.2 kilograms, was obtained by the Natural History Museum of London, which has more than 1,900 meteorites in its collection.

As with the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, the acquisition was made possible through support from an anonymous private donor, who said, “Man may not set foot on Mars in the near future, but Mars has come to us.” As explained in the journal Science, a fluid, probably water, weathered the original rock that later became Tissint.

The implications of ancient water on Mars, and potential habitability, are not lost on the public. The public wants to know more about life — life on Mars, life on Earth, and the potential for life elsewhere. It’s why we went to the museum. As the Curiosity Mars rover examines surface clues in situ, and small visitors from Mars land fortuitously here on Earth, the public supports these investigations in a big way.

As our space program decides upon exploration goals, both for robots and humans, it should look for reference to those things the public wants to support. A space program based fundamentally on public interest and public support is the most logical and sustainable. More than 700 meteorites have been found in Morocco, but only one put Tissint on the map. The obvious choice for near-term exploration is Mars. Let’s get going.

 

David S. Schuman lives in Greenbelt, Md. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or any other organization.