Capturing the Mosaic of Minerals in Meteorites

When Neil Buckland, an artist based in Seattle, met a geologist named Tony Irving a few years ago, he had no idea it would launch an extraterrestrial collaboration. Buckland was at the University of Washington photographing ultrathin slices of meteorite for a project Irving was working on. The cut space rocks didn’t seem particularly exciting at first. Then Buckland peered at the 30-micron-thick samples through a pair of polarizing filters. He was stunned by the vibrant collage of hues.

Inspired by the photographic possibilities, Buckland went back to his studio and got to work designing a camera system built around a microscope lens attached to a Pentax DSLR. To create his images, he captures a 2-millimeter-square section of a sample at up to 40,000X magnification, then moves the camera slightly and shoots another square. After capturing 300 to 400 of those, he stitches them all together into a photo that can be displayed at up to 12 feet wide. “It’s like a cosmos in a pebble,” Buckland says. “From an artistic standpoint, I try to show the images as big as I do and as detailed as they are to create that existential shift in perspective.”

The polarized light can reveal different minerals within the samples. If a meteorite is rich in oliv­ine, like the one at the top of this article, the light brings out greens, oranges, and blues. For scientists, the configuration of minerals can hold clues to a meteorite’s origins, such as whether it came from an asteroid collision a billion years ago or was ejected from a massive impact on another world with a particular mixture of atmospheric gases. They’re also great to look at if you just want to space out.

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