Hunting for Meteorites
How to Find Them
Text and photos By Dale Lowdermilk
How many times have you wished that you could find a way to make a little money from your 4-wheeling weekend, dirt bike, metal detector, or just walkin' across one of California's desolate dry lakes? Well, if you're observant, persistent and a little bit lucky, there may be some bucks waiting out there in the boondocks, just under your nose...and literally right out of the blue.
During the past five years, there has been a rapidly increasing demand from universities and planetary scientists for freshly fallen meteorite material. The result has been an increasing cost to acquire rocks from space, which translates into big bucks for those little shooting stars you see at night. If you know what to look for, they can, literally, become dollars from heaven. [See collecting rules from the BLM below.]
Meteorites are remnants of other worlds, pieces of comets or asteroids blown apart by collisions with each other or, in some cataclysmic cases, with the earth. These pieces of rock or iron (or both) which survive their fiery plunge through our atmosphere can create huge craters like the one near Winslow, Arizona. This crater, nearly a mile in diameter and 600 deep, was created in 10 seconds, about 50,000 years ago by a 100-foot diameter chunk of iron and nickel traveling about 40,000 mph.
This hyper-rock created an unimaginable explosion, most of it disintegrating upon impact, but throwing small pieces over a 12 mile area. There are more than 15 known impact craters throughout the U.S. from which fragments are still being found by treasure hunters, hikers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts.
In addition to craters, there are locations where meteorites have exploded or fragmented at high altitude and dispersed pieces over a wide area, known as a strewn field. These zones can cover just a couple of square acres (Holbrook, Arizona) or several thousand square miles (Namibia, Africa).
Such areas may contain pieces barely distinguishable from surrounding rocks, or they may stand out like a sore thumb, as on a dry lake bed or wide expanse of desert. The fragments may range in size from 1 gram to 1 ton and have high levels of iron or barely a trace. (Magnets will be attracted to 95% of all meteorites, so that is a simple preliminary test you can make in the field.)
Most meteorites that have recently arrived on Earth will have a dark brown or black fusion crust on their surface, the result of a high-speed entry into the atmosphere. Newly identified falls are of great interest to researchers and scientists who can study the sample before it has rusted or become contaminated with terrestrial pollutants.
One of the most famous, if not the most valuable meteorite to be scrutinized by NASA and the news media, was found in Antarctica (Allan Hills) in 1984. After reexamination with an electron microscope it was found to have possible fossilized materials believed to have come from the planet Mars.
If you happen to be ice-biking, or 4-wheeling or prospecting near glaciers or ice fields, keep in mind that solitary rocky material is seldom found embedded in ice, and if you see one, it could be a rare kind of meteorite. Some museums and universities have paid from $100 to $5,000 per gram for this particular (Allan Hills 840001) specimen, but most iron meteorites are sold or traded by collectors from 10 cents to $1.50 per gram, depending upon their variety, authenticity and size. Like gold nuggets, the price is determined by the market -- sometimes a feeding frenzy develops over a particular stony-iron, or recently acquired one-of-a-kind meteorite.
There are many informative and educational books available to anyone interested in prospecting for meteorites. Two of my personal favorites are "Rocks From Space" by O. Richard Norton, (Mountain Press, Missoula Montana) and "History of Meteorites" by Astronomical Research Network (Maplewood, Minnesota).
There are several individuals and organizations -- with catalogs or websites -- that buy and sell meteorites or can help identify suspected meteorites including:
New England Meteoritical Society (Mendon, MA)
Bethany Sciences (New Haven Connecticut)
Smithsonian Institute (Washington, D.C.)
Center for Meteorite Study (Arizona State Univ., Tempe, Arizona)
Robert Haag (Tucson, AZ)
Mare Meteorites (Oakland, CA)
MMR Inc. (San Jose, CA)
Walter Zeitschel (Hanau, Germany)
Swiss Meteorite Lab (Glarus, Switzerland).
Much information about the formation of our sun and surrounding planets can be derived by scientists, geologists and astronomers studying these visitors from outer space. Astronomic and geophysical theories about how Earth was created (and will perhaps end) have been derived from the chemical and crystalline structures of the three major meteorites categories: iron, stony and stony-iron.
If you think you've found a meteorite, three preliminary tests should be performed:
- Is it heavier than a normal rock of the same size?
- Does it attract a magnet?
- Does it have a dark brown or black crust?
If you can answer "yes" to all three questions, there is a chance that you may have a meteorite. For a nominal fee, most university planetary science departments or a licensed mineral testing laboratory will conduct an accurate final analysis. (Don't buy any meteorite until it has been tested and a written verification has been presented. It's very easy to mistake a meteorite for an ordinary piece of hematite, iron slag or other material. There is a growing "counterfeit" problem among meteorite sales.)
If you see a meteorite fall, it's important to record the exact date and time, geographical location, visible landmarks, approximate angle of descent and impact, color, size and shape of the object and whether or not you heard any sounds or explosions. If you find something on a dry lake bed, sand dune or glacier that looks out of place, or your metal detector indicates iron or nickel in that strange looking rock, it's probably worth further investigation and might make you a little richer.
BLM - Rules for meteorite hunters 10/01/2012 - on BLM land.
Casual Collection: Meteorites may be casually collected (i.e., free and without a permit), pursuant to BLM’s regulations at 43 CFR 8365.1-5. In accordance with those regulations:
Collection of meteorites is limited to certain public lands. Public lands closed to casual collection include: developed recreation sites, certain units of the National Landscape Conservation System, areas excluded from casual collection in a Land Use Plan such as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) or a wilderness area, and areas closed by supplemental regulations;
Individuals are limited to collecting what can be easily hand-carried, up to a maximum of ten pounds of meteorites per individual, per year; Only surface collection of meteorites using non-motorized and non-mechanical equipment is allowed (metal detectors may be used); and
Casually-collected meteorites are for personal use only, and may not be bartered or sold for commercial purposes.
Scientific and Educational Use:
Individuals or institutions intending to collect meteorites for scientific research or educational use must obtain an Antiquities Act permit through a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) State Office, in accordance with 43 CFR 3.
Applications for an Antiquities Act permit will be reviewed by the authorized officer in the BLM State Office with jurisdiction over the Cultural Resources program.
Collection amounts allowed for scientific or educational use are specified in the permit and are not subject to the limits (ten pounds) established for casual collection.
Meteorites collected under permit must be curated in an approved repository, and must meet the requirements for curation as defined in 36 CFR 79.
Unless otherwise prohibited by laws, regulations, land use plans or closures, meteorites may be commercially collected by individuals possessing a land use permit issued under the authority of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). Land use permits are issued by the local BLM office in accordance with the regulations in 43 CFR 2920.
The applicant must pay an application fee, a purchase price based on either a unit price or a percentage of the fair market value of the removed material, and a reclamation fee as appropriate. The permittee must comply with all environmental laws and regulations for surface disturbing activities on public lands.
Collection amounts allowed for commercial use are specified in the permit and are not subject to the limits (ten pounds) established for casual collection.
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