About 50,000 years ago, a meteorite came screaming from the sky and slammed into the Earth. The scar it left across the Arizona landscape is now a popular tourist attraction, complete with wreckage from daredevil pilots that flew too low.
While it’s known simply as “Meteor Crater” to most, scientists refer to it as “Barringer Crater” after Daniel Barringer, the man who first suggested that the giant hole was made by a flying space rock. Barringer was a mining engineer, and his business, Standard Iron Company, staked claim on the property. In 1903, along with his partner, mathematician and physicist Benjamin Chew Tilghman, Barringer conducted land surveys and collected documentation supporting his meteor theory. Despite his efforts, he was met with skepticism and disbelief from the scientific community.
Planetary science didn’t mature enough for geologists to swallow Barringer’s impact theory until the ’50s and ’60s. A discovery of the minerals coesite and stishovite, which only occur when quartz-bearing rocks are severely shocked by an instantaneous overpressure, supported all of Barringer’s findings. Unfortunately, Barringer died in 1929 and was never vindicated in life. Eugene M. Shoemaker, who discovered the minerals, was given credit as the man who uncovered the first unarguable proof of extraterrestrial impact.
Those visiting the Meteor Crater should keep their eyes out for the plane wreckage said to still be visible after an ill-fated attempt in 1964 to buzz the crater’s rim, ending in a fiery crash that seriously injured a pair of commercial pilots. Both men survived, and the wreckage of the Cessna 150 was left in the crater, perhaps as a cautionary visual aid to other daredevils that found the geological oddity hard to resist.