The new Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in Bethel has the largest collection of lunar meteorites in the world, along with the five largest pieces of the moon. Credit: Lori Valigra

BETHEL, Maine — Downpours and flash flood warnings Saturday morning did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the hundreds of parents and children waiting in line at Maine’s newest museum to get a piece of a real meteorite.

The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, which officially opened Thursday, houses the world’s largest collection of lunar and Mars meteorites, pieces of the moon and gems and minerals from Maine. The 15,000-square-foot museum occupies two floors in two adjoining buildings in Bethel, a small town in western Maine close to the Sunday River Ski Resort.

“We got here 45 minutes early,” said Paula Weisberger of Bethel, who waited in line with her two granddaughters, 3-year-old Billie and 5-year-old Althea, for a free meteorite sample. She said the girls’ parents, who are in the United Arab Emirates now, called the night before to make sure the children got their rocks.

“I’m very excited about the meteorite,” Althea said.

Credit: Lori Valigra

The Weisbergers, along with more than 200 other parents and children, waited in a long line snaking through the museum’s lobby to get a tiny piece of meteorite in a plastic case, plus a certificate of authenticity. The museum gave them out free to the first 200 school-aged children through the door Saturday. Children also got a crescent moon hand stamp.

Darryll Pitt, who buys and trades meteorites and organized the exhibit for the museum, said he donated the pieces for the children that broke off the Odessa meteorite, which was found near the town of Odessa, Texas.

Pitt became enamoured with meteorites at age 13, when his parents took him to a crater in Arizona.

“My parents had to drag me away,” he said.

Pitt helped Lawrence Stifler and his wife, Mary McFadden, who founded the museum, to obtain the pieces on exhibit.

“There are so many iconic pieces on display,” Stifler said. “Some of the oldest material in the solar system is here and you can touch some of it. And we have more than half of the lunar meteorites in the world here.”

Credit: Lori Valigra

Stifler said the collections for the museum have been in progress for the past 15 years. He and his wife have a part-time home in Bethel.

Walking through the exhibit halls, “wows” and “oohs” were heard from children and adults alike.

Meteorites are very rare. They are fragments of materials from asteroids, comets, the moon and Mars that hit Earth. The largest ones, like Odessa, cause craters.

A meteorite differs from a meteor, which also is a body of rock or metal in space. However, if the space rock vaporizes when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it is a meteor, or shooting star, that often can be seen on a clear night.

The museum’s certificate of authenticity said the Odessa meteorite, which is made mostly of iron, originated from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

It entered the Earth’s atmosphere about 70,000 years ago, when saber-toothed tigers and mastodons still lived, as a large fireball that broke up and created several craters in what later became an oil field.

The museum has more than 3,000 minerals and interactive exhibits, including ones with microscopes to more closely see rocks and other samples. Two exhibits let visitors touch real moon and Mars rocks.

Among the exhibits are the five largest pieces of the moon found on Earth and the largest known piece of the Vesta asteroid, which is the brightest asteroid in the sky.

The museum also has meteorites with extraterrestrial gemstones and the oldest igneous rock in the solar system. That rock, formed from lava or magma that cooled, is 4.56 billion years old.

In the basement of the museum is a research laboratory with one of only two electron microscopes in Maine to study rock samples and determine if they are meteorites, said Stifler, who with his wife heads the Stifler Family Foundation that funded the museum.

“This educational opportunity typically is not available except in big urban centers,” Stifler said. “I’d like to think a future geologist or astrophysicist will get their curiosity stimulated when coming here and start a career.”

Credit: Lori Valigra

It’s almost as though James Tolman, 3, heard Stifler. Dressed in an astronaut costume, he visited with his parents and two sisters. James swept his hand across a display case when asked what he liked best.

“He’s interested in the moon and being an astronaut,” his father, Ken, said. The Tolmans live in Gorham.

Mother Alyssa said James wants Star Wars, NASA and Mir Space Station LEGOs for Christmas.

“He’s very excited about his meteorite sample,” she said.

And James can tell those who don’t know the difference between a rocket and a space shuttle what’s what.

“He’ll tell you a space shuttle has wheels to land and you can drive it,” she said.

The children also could get their photos taken wearing museum gloves and holding a piece of the moon.

“It’s a lot heavier than it looks,” said Asher Nesbit, 14, of Jay, who held the moon rock as he and mother Nemmie had their photo taken.

“What a way to inspire our future scientists,” said Barbara Barrett, director of the museum.

Children 12 and younger can go to the museum for free. Adults pay $15. A $35 membership is available through the end of the year, after which the price will rise, Barrett said.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...