ROSMAN, N.C. — Thieves have stole meteorites collected from around the world in a break-in at a science education center and former spy station deep in the woods of western North Carolina.
The more than 100 rocks that have traveled through space, entered the atmosphere and survived impact with the earth are irreplaceable, said Dave Clavier, vice president of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute here. The not-for-profit foundation provides education and research opportunities for students of all ages interested in astronomy.
“It’s awful,” he said. “Every one of them is one of a kind. It’s an object that’s flown millions of miles through space and crashed into earth.”
The meteorites are from three private collections and were on loan to the institute for display.
“They’ve been collected from Australia, Russia, Antarctica and virtually everywhere around the world,” Clavier said. “They’re unique. They tell scientists and young people about the universe.”
Clavier said the stolen meteorites range from about the size of a quarter to a basketball.
“Since they are typically solid iron, they are very heavy for their size,” he said.
Other equipment valued at about $80,000 including 10 big-screen TV monitors, Blu-ray players, overhead projectors, microscopes and other scientific equipment also was taken.
“It’s difficult enough as a nonprofit to help advance science education for young people much less when criminals like this disrespect everything that we do,” Clavier said.
Video surveillance at the facility near here captured images of two men who broke in through locked doors about 3 a.m. Monday and spent about 45 minutes inside, Clavier said.
Security cameras captured images of possible suspects. Detective Wade Abram of the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office said he also has photos of three people of interest in the case who visited Dec. 21, a few days before the theft.
The center has been closed for the holidays this week.
Meteorites are sometimes sold on websites like eBay and Craigslist and at flea markets, Clavier said.
“I don’t know why they broke in and stole what they stole, but it’s terribly distressing,” he said. “Obviously they don’t care about science education for young people.”
The building was once a top-secret facility of the National Security Agency. NASA originally cleared the 200-acre site in Pisgah National Forest in the early 1960s, building a tracking station for Gemini and Apollo spacecraft.
The National Security Agency took over the facility in 1981 and used it as a listening post, pulling in satellite signals during the Cold War. Donald Cline, an electrical engineer with Bell Telephone Laboratories, took over the facility in 1998, creating Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute as an educational and research center.
The institute is offering a $1,000 reward information leading to the identification of the suspects and recovery of the meteorites and equipment.