On August 12, 2019, I had the good fortune to be a part of a meteorite hunt in southwest Missouri with professional meteorite hunter Steve Arnold. Some of you may remember Steve from his television show “Meteorite Men”. In this article, I’ll give you a little bit of science background and then we’ll look at how you conduct a meteorite hunt using a little science and a little luck.
What Is A Meteor?
If you are already familiar with this you can skip to the next section. If not, this what defines a meteor.
On any given clear night you can see on average of 2-8 meteors, or shooting stars, streak through the sky. During meteor showers this rate can increase to up to 100 or more meteors per hour during the peak of the shower. What do all these lights streaking across the sky have in common?
They are small bits of debris from space that hit the Earths atmosphere at incredible speeds and burn up due to friction with the air. Most of the meteors you see in the night sky are small. They can be as small as a grain of sand up to the size of small pebbles. They are traveling at tens of thousands of miles per hour when they hit the atmosphere. They heat up from friction with the atmosphere and strip electrons from the molecules of gases in the air, creating what is known as a plasma. This plasma surrounding the object is the light you see as a meteor in the sky. You are already familiar with plasma even if you do not realize it. Plasma is what makes neon lights shine.
What Is A Meteorite?
Occasionally a larger space rock will enter the atmosphere. Although these larger space rocks are far less common, they are more exciting. These rocks can be large enough to survive the tremendous heat and pressure from the atmosphere and make it all the way to the ground. If a meteor makes it to the ground we call it a meteorite. This is what we were hunting yesterday.
How Do You Know When & Where You Might Find A Meteorite?
The great thing for those who hunt meteorites is that these objects usually make their presence known. You may remember the Chelyabinsk meteorite in 2017 that exploded over Russia. It caused incredible property damage and injured over 1,000 people.
Luckily, most meteorites don’t cause this kind of destruction. They do create a bright flash that gets the attention of those lucky enough to see them. They can also produce a sonic boom that can be heard and even picked up by seismometers on the ground. Additionally, with the proliferation of video cameras, they are seen on dash cams and security cameras quite often.
But just because there is a fireball on camera or a sonic boom doesn’t mean that pieces of the meteor made it to the ground. That is where a good team of very smart people comes in.
They use data from many sources to try and determine whether any pieces of the rock survive and make it to the ground. They use data from doppler radar, the GOES satellite network, video footage, and even eyewitness accounts to attempt to triangulate the most likely spot where any pieces that survive atmospheric entry may have fallen.
Once all the available data has been analyzed the footwork begins. Even then the search area can change as more data comes in to be analyzed. That is how the search that I participated in evolved yesterday.
The Meteorite Hunt
The Meteorite Hunt Begins
My participation in this meteorite hunt started with pure luck. I was unable to sleep and was up around 3:30 am. Shortly after
I messaged Steve and asked him if an extra set of eyes would be useful. At this point I jumped in the shower and headed out for Springfield, MO around 5:30 am. Since I hadn’t seen the map I ended up in Springfield before I checked it. I then had to backtrack to Monet, MO to start the hunt. I met Steve at a gas station in Monet to plan the hunt. As Steve drove around the city looking at roads and open areas, I went out on the farm roads in the area. After a few hours of searching we hadn’t found anything.
While our search was going on new data had began to come in so we drove a few miles further south and had lunch around 11:00 am. Some new data analysis had been performed and the new area of the probable fall placed it further south close to Aurora, MO.
The Hunt Moves South
While eating lunch Steve was contacted by News 3 in Springfield. They wanted to interview him for the evening news report. After finishing lunch we met with the reporter and then headed south to Aurora. That’s where Steve did an interview. You can see me in the video talking to Steve in the background.
In the video you also get to see dash cam video captured by a driver in Kansas.
After the interview it was back to the hunt. We drove around the city of Aurora looking in open areas such as parking lots and the park. We also spent a few hours driving the many farm roads in the area. Still no luck.
The team had been analyzing data all the while we were searching and with new data the possible fall zone had moved even further south. We struck out for the new possible fall zone.
The Meteorite Hunt Ends For Me
We got to the area and drove around to a few places. The problem with this area was the lack of roads. In addition, there were many grassy fields and wooded hillsides which were on private property so they could not be explored. At around 4:30 pm I was exhausted. At this point I bid farewell to Steve and began the long 2 hour drive home.
The Search Continues
Even as I am writing this there is new data coming in. This is a day and a half after the initial reports of the fireball.
In fact, we just found new footage from the web cam we maintain at Marshall, AR that also captured the fireball beneath the clouds. Watch the video below and you’ll see the flash at 17:05:51. The fireball is 2/3 of the way up and 1/3 of the way from the right hand side. It is really fast so you may have to rewind the video to the time code a few times to catch it.