RICHMOND — As a child, Donna Lewis remembered her grandfather using a 33-pound oblong rock as a doorstop by the front door.
Later, after her grandfather, Tilmon Brooks, died in the 1990s and the rock came into her possession, Lewis used it as an ornament in her flower bed near Pineville in Bell County.
Then one day in May her husband, George, ran a metal detector over it. The device's dial registered "overload."
Long story short, Lewis took the rock to universities where it was confirmed to be a meteorite, the remains of a meteor or "shooting star" that crashed into the earth.
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On Thursday, the Lewis family formally announced that the meteorite found in a cow pasture near Tazewell, Tenn., in the 1930s is now the property of Eastern Kentucky University. It will eventually go on display in the new Sciences building.
Jerry Cook, chairman and professor in the EKU Department of Physics and Astronomy, was practically giddy at the new addition during a news conference.
"My precious," Cook said in a Gollum-like sigh of satisfaction as he cradled the rock in his hands.
"I'm glad it's come here where people can see it and kids can touch it," Lewis said.
Besides, she said, "What am I going to do with it? Throw it back in the flower garden?"
Lewis originally brought the rock to Cook in July. He suspected that it was a meteorite, but told Cook to take it to the University of Tennessee. There, a small tip of the rock was removed for analysis. The material was found to be high in nickel and iron, and strongly magnetic. And it was estimated to be more than 4 billion years old.
"To have something in your possession that's that old, it's just unreal," Lewis said.
UT scientists think the rock is part of a larger meteorite that was found near Tazewell in 1853. The UT people wanted to slice the rock for more tests, but Lewis wanted it kept intact.
"They were really nice and very helpful," Lewis said. "But, you know, Mr. Cook said they would keep it whole."
Cook said the rock has all the characteristics of a meteorite. It's pitted on the surface. Its surface has scorch marks where it burned in its rapid descent through earth's atmosphere.
"Nothing like this occurs in nature," Cook said. "We ran some very simple tests and determined that the density of this thing was around 7.5 grams per cubic centimeter. Nothing has a density like that."
EKU purchased the meteorite from the Lewis family, who asked that the financial terms not be disclosed. Cook said it will be insured as part of the university's larger insurance policy.
Cook said the meteorite will eventually be put on display.
"Part of our job is to get kids interested in science, and physics and astronomy in particular," Cook said. "If this can't do it, I don't know what will. It's really an awe-inspiring kind of thing."
The meteorite couldn't have arrived at a better time for EKU, said John Wade, dean of EKU's College of Arts and Sciences. Some 700 college professors and students will arrive on campus Friday for a meeting of the Kentucky Academy of Science, a professional group that promotes scientific research. The visitors will be able to see the meteorite.
Bell County, where Lewis lives, has its own meteorite story to tell. Geologists say that Middlesboro was built in a four-mile-wide crater created when a meteor hit the earth millions of years ago.
The Bell County crater is among those acknowledged by the Planetary and Space Science Centre at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, which has compiled a list of all known meteor craters.