Meteorite hunters converge on Tucson - Tucson News Now

Meteorite hunters converge on Tucson, searching for the elusive ancient rocks

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

A hunt is on for possible fragments of the meteor that flashed over Tucson Tuesday night.

Scientists and professional space rock hounds are focused on a slice of desert on the northwest side, somewhere between Oro Valley and Marana.

The meteor, that could have been anything from the size of a softball up to the size of a basketball, also created a sonic boom as it streaked to earth.

There is video out of the Mesa area of the fireball as it raced across the sky.

Scientists from here in Tucson and across the world are still trying to figure out if any meteorite fragments may have come down in the Tucson area.

Eric Christensen is the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab Catalina Sky Survey Director.

He calls it a meteoroid.

He says, "It's a small asteroid, as asteroids go, but a large meteor, as meteors go."

The fragments that may have made it to earth might be no larger than a pea.

No one is more interested in the meteor than scientists at the UA's Lunar and Planetary lab.

Among the famous meteorites on display at the university is the one in front of the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium on campus.

It's from Meteor Crater in northern Arizona.

An asteroid hit there some 50,000 years ago.

There is a vast collection of meteorites at the university.

Many of them are very old remnants of the solar system.

However, the event that happened Tuesday night is special.

Any possible meteorites are fresh.  They are covered with what's called a fusion crust.

That's the black crust created when the meteor superheats as it flies through earth's atmosphere. 

Earth's air, water and other forces haven't had time to change them.

That's why the rush to find the tiny stones, if they are even there.

"When we get a sample of a meteorite, that's often a very pristine sample of the very early history of the solar system, billions of years old, you know, four-and- a-half billion years old. And so we can study those building blocks to understand what the early solar system was like," Christensen says.

We had to ask, what are our chances of getting hit by a meteorite?

Christensen figures each of us has a one in a billion chance.

Meteorite hunters scouring the desert northwest of Tucson know what they're looking for.

Searching a huge desert area for a tiny bit of space rock isn't easy.

UA Southwest Meteorite Center Curator Marvin Killgore says it's like searching for a needle in a haystack, but it helps if you know where the haystack is.

He showed us some plain old earth rocks to compare to meteorites from the giant meteor event over Russia in February.

To the untrained eye, it's nearly impossible to tell the difference.

Killgore has been out hunting for signs of the Tucson meteorite.

No luck yet, but he has a lot of stories to tell about previous hunts.

There was the time in Wisconsin, in 2010, when he found a piece, about half the size of a baseball, just off a road.

It turns out, it was the largest of three pieces that had broken apart.

The pieces got scraped up where they slammed into the road.

"Brought my wife back over. She said, well, here's another piece of it laying right here. And so that one fit right there and then we hunted for about an hour more and we found the third piece. Right there. And you can see where it impacted the road. This is the gravel from the road where it hit the road like that and broke into three pieces. So you never know where you're going to find one," Killgore says.

Meteorite hunting has taken Killgore all over the world.

He says it can be exciting and boring. It can be frustrating.

But when you find one and test it to see where it has been...

"It's really exciting to me that we can actually track something that's traveled millions of years through space and finally landed on earth," Killgore says. 

By the way, Killgore's team likes to call rocks that just look like meteorites, meteor-wrongs.

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