Meteorite hunters searching near West find what they believe was part of Sunday's rumble and flash in the sky
Thursday, February 19, 2009
By Ken Sury
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A reporter was talking with a pair of meteorite hunters Wednesday afternoon when one of them suddenly bent down and picked something up off the dirt, less than a foot from the writer’s shoe.
Moritz Karl quickly showed it to his colleague, Michael Farmer, who eyed it quizzically for a split-second before saying, “Is that . . . ?” Then, with realization, “That’s it!”
Pay dirt. A quarter-sized, roundish piece of chondrite meteorite was the Arizona team’s first proof of a meteor that broke apart Sunday over Central Texas and now lies — by the group’s estimate — in thousands of pieces across of a swath of northern McLennan County and probably southern Hill County.
This quarter-sized piece of chondrite, the most common type of meteorite that falls to Earth, was the first found by the team from Arizona. (Rod Aydelotte photo)
Michael Farmer of Tucson, Ariz., holds up a piece of meteorite found Wednesday by Moritz Karl (left) as they searched near West with Robert Ward and Shauna Russell (right). (Rod Aydelotte photo)
“We have lots of dead-end hunts that don’t pay off like this,” said Robert Ward, 32, who has hunted for meteorites for more than 20 years.
The foursome arrived in Waco from Arizona having a pretty good idea that Sunday’s fireball over Central Texas, initially believed to be debris from last week’s collision of a U.S. and Russian satellite in space, would leave meteor rocks strewn across the countryside, said Farmer, 36, senior member of the group and self-described “field adventurer.”
The rumble and flash of the meteor Sunday caused countless Texans to call authorities and prompted the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office to send a helicopter to search the northeastern portion of the county, including roughly where the Arizona group made their find Wednesday.
“This is a significant event,” Farmer said. “This has worldwide interest, and you’re going to have meteor hunters from all over coming here.”
To underscore that point, two rival meteorite hunters, a Russian and an American who lives in Mexico, arrived before the Arizona group looking for the rocks and visiting with residents and property owners.
“The Russians beat us to it,” Farmer said, his comment sounding a bit like the 1960s space race.
Karl, who usually lives in his native Frankfurt, Germany, said his father called him from Germany where video of the fireball, captured by a TV cameraman videotaping the Austin Marathon, was on the news.
“They’re saying it’s satellite debris,” the 26-year-old recalled his father telling him. “ ‘No’, I told him, ‘That was a meteor.’ ”
Shauna Russell, 23, the junior member of the group, said she and her colleagues had a good idea of where to look for the “strewn field” — the area of fallen meteorites — from triangulating the TV video and eyewitnesses who saw the fireball. It also helped to have images from Doppler radar that detected the fireball in the sky around Hubbard, she said.
The chondrite found Wednesday is what meteorite hunters find 90 to 95 percent of the time, Farmer said. He estimates the strewn field to be anywhere from a mile to 2 miles wide and from 5 to 10 miles long, though it could be shorter based on the meteor’s sharp trajectory indicated in the video.
The group said the meteor, which likely hit the atmosphere at about 22,000 mph, could have been anywhere from the size of a refrigerator to a pickup before it began breaking apart. Residents within a few miles of the larger pieces falling would have heard whistling sounds like artillery shell zipping through the air, Ward said.
Farmer said he’s made a living for 13 years hunting and collecting meteorites, which can be sold to universities, planetariums and other collectors. Those sales help fund his and Ward’s meteorite chases, which have taken them to every continent except Antarctica on more than 50 hunts.
“There is an interest. These objects are worth money,” he said.
As word gets out, Farmer expects the area to overrun with professional hunters as well as amateurs, although he said he hopes people can help them find the space rocks, for which they might get paid.
“This is a big deal,” said Farmer, who added that he’s provided many of the meteorites in Texas Christian University’s collection. “It might be 20, 30 years before you get another like this in Texas.”