Meteorites are extraterrestrial rocks from our Solar System. They enable us to study its formation and evolution. The Muséum’s meteorite collection contains over 4,000 specimens with samples of around 1,500 individual meteorites.
This is the world’s third biggest collection in terms of observed falls (over 500 falls). Most meteorites are fragments of asteroids, small bodies located between the orbit of Mars and that of Jupiter. However, a non-negligible proportion of the meteorites (a few percent) comes from so-called “planetary” bodies like Mars, the Moon or Vesta. Some rare meteorites come from comets. The most primitive meteorites (chondrites) enable us to study the various stages of the formation of the sun and planets; this process began 4.5 billion years ago in a gigantic cloud of gas and dust. Differentiated meteorites provide a record of the evolution of the most massive rock bodies in our solar system, like Mars or the Moon. The collection also includes samples of the 63 falls registered in France so far, some of which (Ornans, Aubres, etc.) define types.
Until the end of the 18th century, meteorites were objects of fear or superstition. The Ensisheim meteorite (1492), the first European fall from which a sample has been preserved, was chained up in the church of this small village in Alsace for several centuries – until revolutionaries liberated it in 1793. In 1794, a German scientist, Ernst Chladni (1756-1827), suggested that meteorites might be bodies foreign to our planet. Yet it was not until the L’Aigle fall (in Lower Normandy) in 1803 that his bold theories were accepted by the European scientific community. The first meteorites to join the collection of the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle come from the personal collection of René Just Haüy (1743-1822). Pierre-Louis Antoine Cordier (1777–1861) drew up the first meteorite catalogue in 1843 (27 specimens). When he died in 1861, the Muséum’s collection contained 78 meteorites. The work of his successor to the Muséum’s geology chair was essential to the collection’s enrichment. Gabriel-Auguste Daubrée (1814-1896) started by gathering together the meteorites that had been dispersed across several laboratories and developed a classification system similar to the modern classification. Thanks to his tireless work, the collection already contained 160 specimens by 1864, as a result of donations, acquisitions and exchanges. The collection is growing at an average rate of ten or so samples a year, through purchases, donations and exchanges. In 2015, hundreds of meteorites from systematics research campaigns in the Atacama desert (Chile) will further enlarge the collection.
Each year, a hundred or so samples are loaned or donated for scientific purposes. Dozens of specimens are entrusted to various institutions for scientific or artistic exhibitions. The research work carried out using high-tech instruments, such as the nanoSIMs, is based around chondrites and Martian meteorites in particular; the former enable us to understand the formation of the sun and the planets, the latter the geological evolution of the planet Mars.