Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I wish I had seen it!


Robert Ward travels all over the world in search of meteorites. Now he’s in eastern El Paso County looking for meteorites that were part of a meteor seen above Colorado on Oct. 1. He travels with samples of real meteorites — unusual black rocks, most of which are magnetic — to educate people on what to look for when meteorite hunting. (JERILEE BENNETT, THE GAZETTE)

1. Sunday Oct. 1, a large meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere about 11:15 p.m. over Tucson at about 21,000 mph. 2. Over Alamosa, the object began to break into pieces. 3. The main meteor broke into four pieces over Westcliffe. 4. Those four pieces broke into eight to 15 pieces about eight miles east of Cañon City. 5. The fragments were about 25 miles high when over the Colorado Springs area. 6. The surviving fragments should have landed between Penrose and Ellicott and could be strewn in a field 10 to 15 miles long.



Imagine searching for marblesize rocks in a 50-mile strip between Penrose and Ellicott.

That’s essentially what meteorite hunter and collector Robert Ward was doing Tuesday.

One of the brightest meteors reported in recent years slowdanced across Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado the night of Oct. 1, possibly dropping meteorites toward the tail end of its trip.

Ward said he has chased fireballs worldwide for 20 years, and that this is the most impressive.

“This one traveled amazingly far, amazingly low, and amazingly slowly,” he said. “It was a very big, very bright fireball seen by a lot of people.”

Jeff and Pam Holmberg are two who watched it come to Earth.

The husband and wife were watching television in their house north of Westcliffe when Jeff looked out the window and saw the fireball over the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.

“I started hootin’ and hollerin’ and she came out of the chair like a shot,” Jeff Holmberg said.

He and his wife ran outside in time to see the main fireball break into three or four pieces. Jeff Holmberg scrambled up a ladder to the roof and watched the meteor pieces disappear into the northeast horizon toward Colorado Springs.

“It was a big, bright light with a smoke trail behind it,” he said.

“It was just incredible how close it seemed,” Pam Holmberg said. “It was floating across, so bright, it seemed like you could just reach out and touch it.”

Eyewitnesses and cameras that capture the whole sky in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona caught the fireball at 11:16 p.m. Oct. 1, said Chris Peterson, an astronomer and a researcher at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Witnesses also reported hearing the sonic boom, a sound similar to thunder. The sonic boom is heard several minutes after the fireball is seen because it takes sound that long to travel to Earth from more than 20 miles in the air, Peterson said.

The fireball traveled generally southwest to northeast, beginning northeast of Phoenix, cutting across northwest New Mexico and ending east of Colorado Springs.

It was captured by sky cameras at the Guffey School and at Cloudbait Observatory north of Guffey, which Peterson runs, as well as sky cameras in New Mexico.

The full flight possibly lasted 45 seconds — an eternity for a meteor, Peterson said.

“It was very, very long,” he said. “It was going about as slow as a meteor gets. To see a meteor that goes on for more than half a minute is remarkable.”

Witnesses and cameras show the meteor breaking into pieces in a long train extending at least 70 miles from southern Colorado to Colorado Springs, Peterson said. He described the breakup pattern as “extremely unusual.” Usually meteors fade out, but videos show this one split into a long string of individual fireballs, Peterson said.

Meteorites may have dropped over the central San Luis Valley, in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, across the Wet Mountain Valley and continuing to Ellicott, 20 miles east of Colorado Springs.

Ward, who is from Arizona, is focusing his hunt for space rocks between Penrose and Ellicott. He started by asking people at fire stations, gas stations and convenience stores if anyone had seen or heard anything unusual.

Ward found Jeff Holmberg at the Wet Mountain Fire Protection District, where Holmberg volunteers. Holmberg had told his skeptical fellow firefighters about what he’d seen.

“The boys at the fire station just kind of grinned and shook their heads and asked me about aliens and stuff,” he said.

A couple of days later, Ward walked in and asked if anyone had seen a meteor. Holmberg invited Ward to his house for breakfast and told him his story over biscuits and gravy.

The men climbed on Holmberg’s roof. Ward took compass readings and gathered other information he’ll use to estimate the fireball’s flight path.

Meteorites are typically unusual black rocks with rounded surfaces, Ward said. They’re usually heavier than other rocks the same size, and 90 percent are magnetic.

He finds about 80 meteorites a year, some of them hundreds of years old. It’s rare and more scientifically significant to find meteorites that have just fallen.

“This was in space a week ago,” Ward said. “It’s extremely fresh. It’s important to get it into a lab as soon as possible so it can be analyzed.”

While Ward concentrates on where meteorites might have ended up, Peterson is more interested in where the space rocks came from.

With good reports from several locations, scientists can estimate the orbit of the meteor before it entered Earth’s atmosphere. Then, if meteorites are found, they can be tested to provide scientifically valuable information about the parent body, Peterson said.

They can also be valuable to dealers and collectors, who base their worth on factors such as where the meteorite is from and whether there were witnesses to its fall. A witnessed fresh fall from the moon or Mars might be worth $1 million or more. Other meteorites have little monetary value.


Question: What is a meteor?

Answer: Earth continually crosses paths with debris from asteroids and other bodies such as Mars and the moon. The debris enters Earth’s atmosphere at speeds up to 70,000 mph, producing light and heat from the friction between its surface and the air. When debris hits the atmosphere, its main mass is called a meteor. The heat is usually enough to burn up the meteor while it’s still miles high. As it burns, it generates a bright streak across the sky commonly called a shooting star.

Q: What are meteorites?

A: If fragments from the meteor hit the ground, they’re called meteorites. It can take more than five minutes for meteorites to reach the ground after the meteor burns out.

Q: What are fireballs?

A: When larger particles enter Earth’s atmosphere, they produce a more

spectacular light show. Very bright meteors are called fireballs.

Q: What are meteorites worth?

A: Some are more valuable than gold; others have little monetary value.

No comments: