Meteorite hunters chase fireball near Grand Canyon

Posted by Eric Betz
on Monday, October 06, 2014

A National Weather Service webcam in Bellemont, Arizona, caught the smoke trail after a rare daytime fireball streaked south of Grand Canyon National Park on the morning of Saturday, October 4. Courtesy image

A small team of veteran meteorite hunters is combing the desert south of Grand Canyon National Park in hopes of finding the remains of a fireball that lit up the skies of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Saturday.

The daytime fireball sent out a sonic boom and left a small trail of smoke hovering in the sky just before 9 a.m. local time. Many residents took to social media to post photos of the strange sighting. Other witnesses reported seeing material coming out of the meteor as it broke up reentering the atmosphere. Residents also reported seeing the event on the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation to the north of Flagstaff, where tribal members said they felt and heard it too.

“We’re certain there’s stones on the ground. There’s no doubt about that,” said meteorite hunter Robert Ward, who lives in nearby Prescott, Arizona. He attributes his certainty to the brightness of the daytime fireball and the sonic boom it created. He said that the space rocks could be anywhere from just a couple grams to several kilograms by the time they reach Earth.

Ward arrived in Flagstaff not long after the event and spent Sunday talking to witnesses and attempting to triangulate the fireball’s exact path. When he spoke with Astronomy this morning, Ward said he was headed out into the field to search south of Grand Canyon. He’s recovered 22 meteors this way in the past, but such a find is still very rare. If he were successful again, it would be only the third time in Arizona history that a meteorite has been recovered using witness accounts.

It takes several days to pinpoint an approximate location based on witness accounts and photos, but this search has an extra element of haste, Ward said. Rain is in the forecast later in the week, which could contaminate any samples. That has the team asking residents to share their accounts.

Ward and his colleagues have established a plan to work with nearby Northern Arizona University on sample analysis if they are successful.

In 2012, scientists were able to recover a fireball that streaked across the San Francisco Bay Area because a piece hit someone’s roof. A large team of scientists traced that rock’s violent past back to shortly after the formation of the solar system. The California rock was scarred black in the collision that created the Moon and had a string of additional bang-ups that scientists were able to pin down before it entered the atmosphere measuring just 14 inches (36 centimeters). Astronomers were surprised to find that even after all those collisions, the meteorite still had organic compounds.

It’s those sorts of valuable lab tests Ward would hope to have done on the meteorite remains in Arizona, if his team can find it.

“They come down a lot, but to actually recover one is uncommon,” Ward said. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”

Interestingly, another large fireball lit up the night skies of nearby southern Utah just days before the event in northern Arizona. No word on debris from that fireball.

Associate Editor Eric Betz can be reached at ebetz@astronomy.com. He's on Twitter @ericbetz. 

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