It looked like a scene from a movie: students crowded in a school gym blinded by a bright light in the sky as windows shattered around them. Last Friday was a red letter day for galactic occurrences: the meteorite strike in Siberia coupled with a near-simultaneous visit by asteroid DA14. For a quick primer on the difference between meteors, meteorites, and asteroids, read this—even we at HIPPO Reads needed a refresher!—in sum, asteroids are those hurling space rocks created at the birth of our solar system that become meteors when they enter earth’s atmosphere as shooting stars and meteorites if they happen to strike earth’s surface as they did last week.

Apocalyptic threats aside, meteorite impacts are actually quite useful to the scientific community and astrophysicists: these unassuming rocks, sometimes inadvertently used as doorstops—as in the case of this Tennessee family—actually hold important clues to the origins of our universe.

A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and outlined in this Science News article (with exclusive access for Hippo Readers), shows that nucleobases (ring-shaped compounds used to store information in RNA and DNA molecules) are present in meteorites. If this is the case then these rocks are likely responsibly for carrying the basis for life to earth. These findings also suggest such compounds exist elsewhere in the universe, thus hinting at the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Aside from the recent meteorite strike in Siberia, where’s the best place to find well-preserved rocks? One needn’t look much farther than the ice sheet in Antarctica, a virtual meteorite graveyard. In this 1997 Discover Magazine article, Mary Roach provides a lively portrait of meteorite hunters participating in ANSMET (the aptly-named Antarctic Search for Meteorites). Roach beautifully details the differences in types of meteorites, including the common, but unordinary chondrite, a contemporary of the sun. Ralph Harvey, a member of ANSMET, tells Roach with reverence, “When you’ve got a chondrite in your hand, you are holding a piece of the sun.” As Roach details, somewhat prophetically given her work’s publication date, these meteorites hold clues to the formation of our solar system.

For the more fantastically-minded, in The Invasion from Outer Space, a very short story published in the New Yorker, Steven Millhauser quickly, as fast and unexpected as a meteorite’s impact, reminds us that the universe has subtle ways of flexing its enigmatic powers.

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Image credit: Kenneth Lu via flickr