Geoff Notkin talks meteorites

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Geoff Notkin is awesome.

Geoff Notkin, owner of Aerolite Meteorites, carefully holds the main mass of his most recently designated specimen, the Old Camp Wash meteorite. // All images: Astronomy: Michael E. Bakich
As an author, educator, musician, scientist, and someone who for three seasons played his real-life analog, one of the Meteorite Men in the TV show by the same name on the Science Channel, Notkin has seen a lot. Maybe not all of it, but a lot. And yet he remains one of the friendliest and most approachable people you’ll ever meet.

Notkin and two employees are attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show under the banner of his company, Aerolite Meteorites. I stopped by his suite Monday, February 8, for a 15-minute visit. Well, that was my plan, to not take up too much of his valuable time. An hour and a half later, I’m literally running out of the room because I remembered I had a scheduled interview at a radio station that same afternoon.

After a brief catching-up chat, I asked, “What’s new, Geoff?” His answer, “Well, we’re all keeping pretty busy,” didn’t begin to describe all that he’s involved in.

He started with the company’s breaking news, that a meteorite they had submitted to the Institute for Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico for designation and classification had just received its name (the classification is still pending). I, of course, assumed he had discovered it, but that’s not how it happened.

A rancher who lived west of Phoenix was out on his land one day and found an odd-looking rock with several smaller pieces nearby. Because the man had been a viewer of Meteorite Men, he found Aerolite Meteorites’ website and address and sent them a small piece.

“We opened the package and knew immediately that it was a meteorite,” Notkin said. “It had thumbprinting (hollowed out areas caused by heat flaking off pieces of the meteorite when it’s in flight through our atmosphere), some fusion crust, was magnetic, and more.” He immediately called the rancher and set up a visit. Notkin offers meteorite discoverers several options, including donating the piece to a museum. This time, however, the owner opted for a straight purchase.

The main mass of the meteorite weighs approximately 28.5 pounds (13 kilograms). However, another part of the deal allowed Notkin and his team to search the area of the fall for other pieces. When they did, Beth Carrillo, the company’s Media Director, found two additional pieces, each tipping the scales at roughly 11 pounds (5kg). Congratulations, Beth!

For $5, visitors to Notkin’s suite at the Hotel Tucson City Center during the Gem & Mineral Show can search a “meteorite crater” (that resembles a small volcano) for 5 minutes. Any meteorite you find, you can keep! And, yes, there are meteorites in there. The record stands at five. An 8-year-old girl found that many in her 5-minute allotment.
When it came time for Notkin to suggest a name for the space rock, he began with the standard approach: Meteorites receive their names from the nearest post office (town) or geologic feature. In this case, the nearest town was Tonopah, Arizona, but a meteorite already existed with that name. So, Notkin decided to suggest the name of the nearest feature, which was Old Camp Wash. (A wash is a normally dry creek that fills with water after rains during the monsoon season in the Desert Southwest.) The committee he submitted the name to accepted it, and a “new” meteorite was born.

One fact I found particularly fascinating was how often material submitted to Aerolite Meteorites turns out to be a meteorite. I didn’t even have to ask the question. Notkin began the Old Camp Wash meteorite story by telling me it was a thousand-to-one occurrence. “In fact,” he continued, “I can tell you more exactly because we’ve run the numbers. Over the life of the company, one submission out of every 1,200 that we receive turns out to be real.”

We chatted about a number of other projects, but rather than making this blog interminably long, I’ll do a follow-up in a few days about a program they’ve started called Meteorite Boot Camp.

You’ll find lots more information about Notkin and his company online here.

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