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Pine Island’s Heitz loans Mars meteorite to Calusa Nature Center

By Staff | Aug 16, 2017

Pine Island resident and meteor hunter Tim Heitz has loaned a meteorite from his extensive collection to the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium in Fort Myers. The mysterious rock, from the planet Mars, will be on display indefinitely at the center.

“This is one of only four places in the country where people can not only see a piece of planet Mars, but also touch it,” Heitz said.

Three other “touchable” exhibits exist: one is at the St. Louis Science Center, where Heitz had previously donated a meteorite; the second is at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas; and the third is at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Heitz became interested in meteorite hunting in 1996 when he saw a news broadcast on television about a Mars meteorite that brought worldwide media attention because scientists claimed that it had evidence of microscopic bacteria life on Mars.

“That’s the first thing that peaked my interest and then there was something on the Discovery Channel about buying and selling meteorites – that’s where it all started,” Heitz said. “When I learned that people could buy and sell them I was hooked.”

A meteorite is a piece of debris that passes through Earth’s atmosphere and impacts with the Earth’s surface. Meteors can fall anywhere on the planet and large ones can create craters like the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona, The Odessa Meteor Crater in Texas and the Wolfe Creek Crater in Australia.

“Meteorites like the one I am loaning are created when the planet, in this case Mars, is impacted very hard, launching pieces of the planet into space,” Heitz said. “If those pieces come close enough to the Earth’s gravitation, it will pull them into our atmosphere where they fall to Earth for meteorite hunters to find.

“One question I’m frequently asked is, ‘How do you know it came from Mars?'” Heitz said. “And that’s a good question. Back in 1976 the United States sent the Viking I spacecraft to land successfully on Mars. As part of its mission, Viking I tested the atmosphere of the planet and sent the results back to Earth. When a meteorite is found on Earth it can be cut open and tested. If the gasses inside the meteorite match the readings Viking I found, you know the meteorite came from Mars.”

While living in St. Louis, Heitz was contacted by a man who wanted to sell a meteorite.

“I received a phone call about two months before Christmas in 2012 from a man that said his father had died and that he had a meteorite he wanted to sell,” Heitz said. “He thought I might be interested in buying it but he didn’t know how much it was worth.”

Heitz had the man take a photo and send it to him.

“The picture was very blurry and I couldn’t even tell whether it was a meteorite or not.” Heitz said. “I suggested he send it to me and if it was worth anything, I’d send him the money.”

Heitz learned later it was a $40,000 meteorite stolen from a museum.

“The man was arrested and I contacted the museum and returned it,” Heitz said. “It was a big story in St. Louis and written up in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.”

Last year the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium had a grand opening to present the “Campo de Cielo” meteorite. Campo de Cielo meteorites are a group of meteorites that impacted the Earth about 600 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in an area named Campo de Ciera.

The 120-pound meteorite from Campo de Ciera was donated to the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium in August of last year by the Toomey Foundation and is currently on display.

“When I heard about the Campo de Cielo exhibit at the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium last year, I thought I’d loan a Mars meteorite,” Heitz said. “This particular meteorite was found in the desert of Morocco. I am fortunate enough to know people that live in Morocco and a gentleman sent this one to me.”

The “Heitz Mars Meteorite Exhibit” opened Friday night with a reception and unveiling that included light fare, drinks and a photo opportunity and meet-and-greet with Heitz. He also gave a few remarks about the excitement that comes from meteorite hunting.

The opening of the exhibit on Saturday included all-day space-related activities (crafts, games, a scavenger hunt and an information table with information from the SW Florida Astronomical Society).

“Mars is approximately 141 million miles from the sun and at it closest, approximately 50 million miles from Earth,” Heitz said. “This is an extremely rare opportunity to touch something that has traveled millions of miles from another planet to Earth.”

The Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium is located at 3450 Ortiz Ave, Fort Myers, FL 33905 Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children 3-12 and free for children 2 and younger. For more information, call 239-275-3435.