Meteorites—the chunks of debris from space that may have killed the dinosaurs and sometimes threaten humans, too—are usually lumpy, gray, and sinister-looking from the outside.
But when cracked open and photographed, they reveal a universe of iridescent mosaics in neons and golds. As astronomy photographer Jeff Barton describes them to Co.Design, meteor innards are "natural stained glass."
Barton, Director of Sciences at Three Rivers Foundation and a meteorite collector since 2004, took these stunning images of the Allende meteorites. Named for the Mexican pueblito in the state of Chihuahua where they fell in 1969, the astral rocks contain interstellar dust particles that are thought to be the oldest unaltered particles in our solar system: 4.567 billion years old, that is.
To get the images, Barton used polarizing filters and a petrographic microscope. Crystals in the meteorite sample catch the cross-polarized light, and their colors change when the light is rotated, an effect called birefringence.
Cracking open meteorites requires a rock saw with a diamond-coated blade. Scientists like Barton will grind a postage stamp-sized piece of the rock until it’s thin enough for light to pass through, and then glue the slice to a microscope slide for its photo shoot. Barton also creates shimmering animations of the meteorite insides by snapping a photograph every few degrees as he rotates the filters—essentially, stop-motion animation on a microscopic level.
Geologists and astronomers make these images for scientific rock-classifying purposes, not just because they’re pretty. As Barton explains, "The colors represent the natural frequencies of the minerals of which the crystals are made. By rotating the filters and photographing the results, you can determine the crystals’ angle of refraction." This tells you what type of mineral you’re looking at.
But yes, they sure are pretty. And Barton let slip his trade secrets for those curious about DIY astral rock photography: "Thin sections of meteorites are widely available on eBay, some for under $50," he says. "With two linear polarizing filters for camera lenses, you can reproduce the petrographic microscope technique simply by placing the slide between the filters and shining an ordinary flashlight through. You can buy everything you need to do this for about $100."
"The large meteorites in my Meteorite Petting Zoo have traveled hundreds of miles and been handled, even tasted, by thousands of curious students over the past decade," says Barton of his collection.
See his full set of 102 meteorite thin section photos here.