Just before 4 a.m. earlier this summer, the dark skies over Arizona were dramatically lit up by a visitor from outer space! Fifty-seven miles up in the sky, a big fireball HURTLED through our atmosphere on June 2 and was visible to most of Arizona. At some point, the fireball broke up, putting on a brilliant display of smaller lights as if some sort of fireworks just went off. NASA tracked our super bright visitor, calling it an asteroid that slammed into our atmosphere at about 40,200 mph! Meteorite experts estimate the asteroid was about the size of a VW Beetle before it went to pieces. As the sun rose, complex trails of smoke lingered in the sky. Some witness thought our extraterrestrial visitor landed near Phoenix, others thought somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix—the hunt was on for freshly fallen meteorites!
Where Do Meteorites Come From?
These out-of-this-world rocks can come from different places—maybe from the moon or even from Mars. But most come from a region called the asteroid belt and are incredibly old—fragments from the early days of our solar system! Dr. Laurence Garvie is a researcher at the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies and is the curator for its amazing collection of around 2,100 named meteorites, including several rare and well-known ones. A few dozen marvelous meteorites can be viewed in the exhibit area on the second floor of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) building. The rest are kept in a climate controlled vault. More sensitive samples are kept stable in special storage containers that are filled with nitrogen. “Almost everything in this room comes from the asteroid belt. It’s an area where stuff has been for billions of years—remnants of our early solar system between Mars and Jupiter,” Dr. Garvie explains. “Lots of little planets were forming and breaking up and forming and breaking up…it was a very active time in the very early solar system.” If an object’s orbit is disrupted in the asteroid belt, that rock tends to head toward the largest gravitational object in the solar system—the sun—and by chance, can end up on a collision course with Earth! Some of these space rocks that fall to Earth have travelled 111 million to 390 million miles.
The Hunt Is On!
Meteorite experts estimate that between 40,000 and 100,000 tons of space rock hit Earth’s atmosphere each year. “But the vast majority DISSIPATES in the upper atmosphere,” Dr. Garvie explains. Meteorites land all over the globe and are pretty randomly distributed. So most end up splashing into the ocean! On June 2, Dr. Garvie woke up to a bunch of texts and emails about the fireball. When he arrived at his office, the SESE building was crawling with news crews. “But we didn’t know if anything had fallen—we saw it break up and disintegrate. It doesn’t have to leave anything on the ground. Or it could break up and drop something rare, and we don’t know where it has gone!” Fortunately, Doppler radar used to track the weather recorded meteorites falling! And it indicated that they landed in the White Mountains, which is run by the Apache Tribe. ASU has representatives who work with the tribal government, and Dr. Garvie soon had a deal worked out to bring a team to find the freshly fallen meteorites! Dr. Garvie headed up the team—two meteorite studies grad students and three professional meteorite hunters. Those in the private meteorite biz often work with museums and universities. With the Doppler data, they had a good idea where to start looking for the meteorites. Despite the very rugged terrain and even a late-night visit by bears to their campsite, the team was successful right away! Like the White Mountains samples, the majority of meteorites aren’t the nickel-iron kind, so using a metal detector or a magnet on a stick wouldn’t help. This search had to be done by just looking. “I was delighted to find the second one. Robert Ward, one of the professional meteorite hunters, found the first one within a few minutes,” Dr. Garvie says. “I let him collect the data and photograph his sample, and I started walking around and then I found one! And then one of the grad students found one shortly after that.” Meteorites fall in an ELLIPTICAL pattern, with the lighter material falling first and the heaviest rocks going farthest. This is called a strewn field and helps hunters narrow their search efforts. This strewn field covered 8 miles! From their fiery entry into the atmosphere, the outside of these meteorites have a matte black fusion crust on the outside. One of the samples struck something hard when it hit the ground and split open, revealing a concrete color inside. The black rocks from outer space contrasted well with the mountain soil and native rocks to make spotting them easier. Over the week, the team found 15 meteorites ranging in size of a pea to a Brussels sprout! While the Apache Tribe actually owns these black beauties, they are all at the meteorite center waiting to be analyzed to find out what they’re composed of. Sometime soon, the tribe will get to name this meteorite, which usually reflects where the samples fell. Dr. Garvie hopes the tribe might choose an Apache name. He says there are definitely more of these meteorites still on the mountain, maybe a few larger ones!
Studying Meteorites & the Asteroid Bennu
According to Dr. Garvie, there’s good reason to study meteorites, some of which go back 4½ billion years and may have taken a million or more years to form. One of the samples he’s studying is what he describes as a mud ball—yet a super-important meteorite named Orgueil, which fell in France in the early 1800s. Looking at all these ancient stones from space is helping scientists piece together what happened early on in our solar system. “It’s giving us fantastic insights into the early solar system and what was going on!” Dr. Garvie explains. And with every study, a piece of our solar system’s story is put in place. He notes that some of these discoveries are more important than others, but they all help complete the picture. Unfortunately, mud balls like Orgueil are easily contaminated by Earth’s moist atmosphere, organic matter and oxygen. So the OSIRIS-REx mission, set to launch Sept. 8, plans to fly out to the asteroid Bennu, which, like Orgueil, is a carbonaceous chondrite (mud ball), photograph it, analyze it and then get close enough to the asteroid to scrape a sample of it in the nice, clean vacuum of space, seal it up and return the sample to Earth for many scientists to study!
Stardom for a Meteorite Hunter?
Deserts are great places for finding meteorites, and that’s just one of several reasons why Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin moved to Tucson about 12½ years ago. Notkin has reached celebrity status largely due to his stint with his meteorite hunting buddy on the show “Meteorite Men.” For three seasons, Notkin and Steve Arnold captivated millions of viewers as they shared their adventures traveling the world in search of these extra-terrestrial rocks. Notkin and Dr. Garvie are friends, and in his 2012 book “Rock Star, Adventures of a Meteorite Man,” Notkin calls him “the third Meteorite Man.” The two share similar backgrounds. Both were raised in the United Kingdom and had parents who really encouraged their love of science and for rockhounding! Both enjoy the beauty of the Arizona desert, are into photography and both found their first meteorites here!
A Motivated Meteorite Man
While Notkin’s dad shared his love of backyard astronomy with him, it was his mom taking him to museums that really sparked his interest in meteorites. Instead of viewing far off objects in space with his dad’s telescope, he remembers going to London’s Geological Museum, now part of the Natural History Museum. “In the 60s, there was no worldwide interest in meteorites like there is now. Only a few museums had collections,” he recalls. “But they had on display some very large meteorites that you could touch. So here we have bits of other worlds on display, and I found it fascinating, entrancing really. Mysterious shapes, ancient—they’ve fallen out of space and are rocks!” Notkin is a professional meteorite hunter, trader and dealer, and has traveled to over 50 different countries. With so many meteorites for sale from all sorts of sources, he’s proud that he found his first one on his own in the early 90s instead of buying one! It was a weathered iron meteorite known as a shale bull about the size of a fist. Since then, he’s discovered countless meteorites! His all-time favorite was with Arnold filming the opening show of their second season of Meteorite Men. “We were hunting in Kansas on a giant farm with a huge metal detector that we were towing behind a motorcycle, the thing that Orange County Choppers built for us,” Notkin remem- bers. “We got a huge audio return on the speaker of the detector. It was so loud, it had to be close to the surface and big.” They started digging…“We only got down a few inches when we hit the surface of the meteorite, and it was 223 pounds! Not just any old meteorite, but a pallasite—the pretty ones with the gemstones!,” he says. “A beautiful, large, complete mass loaded with olivine crystals. And to find something like that on camera is what you dream of!”
Meteorite Hunting Precautions
Before you go looking for meteorites, you have to know where you are and what the laws are for that area. For example, you are not allowed to remove anything or alter anything in a National Park or Monument, Notkin warns. You can get into big trouble if you aren’t careful. “We do things the right way, and we try to make friends where we go,” he points out. He says he prefers meteorite hunting on privately owned land after a deal has been struck with the landowner.
More Movies and TV
Notkin is fascinated by a lot of things—not just finding meteorites. He loves the tie-in with science fiction movies, books and graphic novels. Not only is he part of some upcoming TV shows, he and his team just released a documentary called “Dream Dangerously,” which focuses on comics and fantasy author Neil Gaiman. They are getting set to produce a new adventure TV series called, “Department of Strange Finds,” which will have celebrity guests, including his “Meteorite Men” counterpart Steve Arnold.
Learn to Hunt Meteorites!
Notkin’s company, Aerolite Meteorites, just started camps that teach young and old how to hunt for space rocks! “We now hold guided meteorite hunting and training adventures camps just north of Tucson—at White Stallion Ranch,” he explains. It’s a three-day, two-night course, and local folks are eligible for a discount and don’t need to stay overnight at the ranch (although it’s super fun). Notkin trains the campers, who go out hunting two strewn fields. The next camps are Halloween weekend and in January. All equipment is provided and you get to keep any meteorites you find! Go to Meteoriteadventures.com or info.