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The meteorite is now at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where scientists are conducting experiments on it. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution / Linda Welzenbach

Space invader: Meteorite hits Virginia doctors' office

The exam room where the space rock landed has become the most requested room among patients, who joke about wearing hard hats to appointments.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted Feb. 8, 2010

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Falling at 220 miles per hour from an asteroid belt, a baseball-sized meteorite crashed into a Lorton, Va., family practice.

Late in the afternoon on Jan. 18, family physician Marc Gallini, MD, was swamped with patients and running behind. Physician assistant Susan Messing helped out by seeing Dr. Gallini's last patient, using exam room No. 2.

Ten minutes after that visit ended, around 5:45 p.m., Dr. Gallini and family physician Frank Ciampi, MD, were finishing paperwork in their offices when they heard what sounded like bookshelves crashing to the floor.

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Marc Gallini, MD (left), and Frank Ciampi, MD Photo courtesy of The Chronicle Newspapers

Dr. Gallini found a trail of debris in the hallway. Inside the exam room were fallen insulation and three small pieces of rock.

"I thought it was something that fell from a military or cargo plane," he said.

The rock landed near where Dr. Gallini would have been, seated on a stool next to a patient, had Messing not seen that last patient.

It wasn't until 10 a.m. the following day, when the office manager's husband recognized the half-pound magnetic rock as a meteorite, that the doctors began to understand what had happened.

Overnight, the two-doctor practice in northern Virginia became an international sensation, attracting scores of media, amateur astronomers and meteorite hunters searching for pieces of the space rock that may have broken apart as it streaked to earth.

Falling from space

The fallen object, classified as a chrondrite meteorite, likely originated from a small asteroid measuring approximately one meter across before it entered the Earth's atmosphere, where it started to burn up and disintegrate, said Paul Chodas, PhD, a research scientist at NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Tons of space material from asteroids and comets rain down on Earth every day. Most of it falls as dust, Chodas said. But space objects similar in size to the Virginia meteorite strike Earth once a month, typically landing in oceans or uninhabited areas.

Crashing into a building -- and an occupied one at that -- makes this meteorite landing unusual, but not a one-of-a-kind occurrence. For example, in 1954, a meteorite crashed through the roof of a Sylacauga, Ala., house, badly bruising the woman inside, Chodas said.

Media reports said the Virginia meteorite was the first to strike a building in the United States since September 2003, when a 44-pound rock smashed through the roof of a New Orleans home.

At his office, Dr. Gallini said patients joke about the meteorite, asking if they should bring hard hats for their visits. Exam room No. 2, where the meteorite landed, has become the room patients request the most.

Ownership of the space rock is in question. A newspaper report said the owners of the building, where Drs. Gallini and Ciampi rent space, are interested in maintaining ownership of the meteorite. The owners could not be reached for comment at this article's deadline.

For now, the rock resides with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, where scientists have conducted experiments on it. The museum also collected the vacuum bag the doctors used to clean up the debris.

The Smithsonian plans to give the physicians $5,000 for the meteorite, according to Dr. Gallini. He said the funds would be donated to Doctors Without Borders for their relief efforts in Haiti.

Of the meteorite's final home, Dr. Gallini said, "We think it should go to science, to the Smithsonian, to go on display for people who want to see it."

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