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50 years later, Glenville meteorite still inspires

50 years later, Glenville meteorite still inspires

Rock to be part of observatory event
50 years later, Glenville meteorite still inspires
Valerie Rapson holds a meteorite that struck a house in Glenville 50 years ago.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY -- When miSci's Dudley Observatory hosts its National Astronomy Day celebration later this month, one object will be front and center.

It's a celestial object, or at least it was before it crashed into a roof in Glenville 50 years ago Thursday.

The meteorite hails from the asteroid belt but has called miSci its home since shortly after it landed. It will be the focus of an hour-long "show and tell" during the April 21 National Astronomy Day celebration.

The potato-sized meteorite glanced off the roof of a Swaggertown Road home the evening of April 12, 1968, and was donated to the museum by the homeowner shortly afterward. It has been there ever since, inspiring young viewers.

"It's really awesome. We can talk about meteorites all day, but until you hold it in your hand and actually look at it up close or under a microscope, it's surreal until then," Dudley outreach astronomer Valerie Rapson said. "It's very rare that you can do hands-on astronomy, aside from looking through telescopes."

The museum has other, smaller meteorites in its collection that will be part of the hands-on portion of the April 21 celebration. But the Schenectady Meteorite, shown periodically over the years, will also be on display.

The meteorite's full history spans 4 billion years, countless orbits around the sun and a trek from the inner part of the asteroid belt to Earth. Its local history dates to the night of a lunar eclipse, also Good Friday, in 1968.

"Everyone was outside looking at the eclipse, and at about 8:30 at night a fireball starts streaking across the sky," said miSci Senior Archivist Chris Hunter.

There was a small explosion at some point, and smaller pieces streaked out from the fireball.

"And the only little piece found had struck Joseph Kowalski's house on Swaggertown Road in Glenville," Hunter said.

Residents around the Northeast reported seeing the fireball. A Schenectady Gazette article about the find cited a witness who described the size of the flash as about a quarter to half the size of the moon, and then brief, ember-like streamers. Other accounts were gathered by Russell Carter, who was curator of the Schenectady Museum (now miSci) at the time of the meteorite's landing. 

One Swaggertown Road resident, according to Carter's accounts, was setting up his telescope for the eclipse and reported seeing multiple fragments streak over his house.

Down Swaggertown Road, Kowalski reported he heard a loud bang on the roof. He later described it as sounding like a firecracker went off in his attic. But he and a neighbor concluded someone had thrown something at the house.

Two days later, though, as he returned from Easter services, Kowalski spotted damage to the underside of his eve and then to his roof. He soon spotted the apparent cause -- a jet-black, baseball-sized rock just sitting on the ground.

Further investigation identified the object as a meteorite.

Carter convinced Kowalski to donate the space rock to the museum and, except for a trip to the Smithsonian for more research, it has been at the Schenectady museum ever since. It will be back on display for the April 21 event.

To give an idea how fortunate the museum is, Hunter said the only other meteorite to be discovered locally was in Bethlehem -- in 1859. Farther out, a meteorite hit a parked car in Peekskill in 1992.

The Schenectady Meteorite (named for the closest city to the impact) includes a mixture of iron and nickel, as well as other minerals.

"The chances of one striking a house again here are probably very, very slim -- at least one this large," Rapson said.

The MiSci National Astronomy Day Schedule for April 21, with museum admission:

  • 11 a.m to Noon: Chris Hunter's Schenectady Meteorite Show and Tell
  • 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.: Hands-on activities throughout the museum
  • 1 to 3 p.m.: Solar observation, weather permitting
  • 3 to 4 p.m.: Challenger Adventure (Extra fee)
  • 4 to 5:30 p.m.: Touch a meteorite with outreach astronomer Valerie Rapson
  • 7  to 8 p.m.: Public meteorite talk with Union College professor Heather Watson
  • 8 to 9 p.m.: Night sky observing with the Rising Star Interns
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