So You Think You Found a Meteorite – Expert Shares Her Secrets for Finding a Meteorite in Your Backyard
A meteorite hit my house back in 2004… and many readers of this blog shared their discoveries. At no time was I ever suggesting that you endanger yourself by climbing up on your roof to drag a magnet through your gutters. But many of you did… and you found lots of cool stuff. Instead of climbing up on your roof, try this – The next time it rains, place a bucket under a drain spout in order to collect a good quantity of rain. Get rid of the leaves and roofing materials and then sift the remains through a bit of old window screen. What you’re after is so small that you’ll need a very strong magnet (neodymium magnet) to find them. Use this super-strong magnet to determine if any of the remaining particles contain iron. Those particles may be space dust, also known as micrometeorites.
Here’s the problem… I’ve always wondered if I really found a meteorite. So I asked meteorite expert, Dr. Suzanne Metlay, to help me solve my quandary. Dr. Metlay was Education Programs Manager at Fiske Planetarium at CU-Boulder until 2008. She is now Operations Director at Secure World Foundation, a private non-profit non-governmental organization based in Superior, CO, dedicated to promoting cooperative solutions for space security.
Dr. Metlay offered these cool ideas…
So, You Think You Found a Meteorite?
Wow, this is a weird-looking rock. Could it be a meteorite? Chances are… no… but you never know. Your latest finding could be something really interesting. So whatever you’ve got, go check it out, but be sure to use a little science.
(1) Record your observations. Before you take your find out of the field (or wherever it is you found it), stop! Take pictures and notes, write down exactly where you are and what’s nearby, explain anything unusual, etc. In other words, take necessary data that will help determine exactly what you have and where it came from. Specifically…
- Use your cell phone camera to take pictures of the rock where you found it. Put a coin or pen near the object to give a sense of size. Try to get all sides. No camera? Use that pen to sketch a quick drawing of the rock and point out what makes it unusual.
- Add notes about color, size, weight, etc. Is there anything interesting nearby, like a crater or disturbed soil? Describe the area where you found it as well as the other rocks and dirt around.
- Where are you? What are the nearest landmarks? Are there roads, railroad tracks, or trails in the area? What about creeks or streams?
(2) Make a hypothesis (wild guess) – “I think I found a meteorite”. Now you can wrap the rock in a piece of cloth or paper and take it home. Explain what makes it curious:
- Is the surface a shimmery purple-black (like eggplant) or a dull deep black? Fusion crust is the charred skin left behind from burning as the rock fell though Earth’s atmosphere. Fusion crust starts out shimmery black when the meteorite first lands on Earth but then dulls with age and exposure to air and water. Sometimes, it turns a rusty red.
- Does it look melted or bubbly? That could be a sign of having travelled through Earth’s atmosphere – or be a big clue that this is a piece of human-made industrial waste called slag.
- Are there many pieces that look alike or look like they might fit together? Some meteorites break up into pieces before they land or when they hit the ground.
(3) Test your guess. Here’s the fun part – try to figure out what the rock is. Take measurements of length, height, and width, and more pictures with a digital camera. Record your data along with your observations.
- Weigh it – Is the rock unusually heavy for its size? That might indicate a high metal content, like an iron meteorite. However, most meteorites are classified as “stony” and don’t necessarily weigh more than the average Earth rock.
- Use a magnet – Is the rock magnetic? Yes might mean an iron meteorite, which is really a mixture of metals like iron and nickel with other materials like sulfur. But stony meteorites are weakly or not at all magnetic.
- Use a magnifying glass – Do you see little white blobs or tiny flecks of metal? Chondrules are small, white, rice-shaped, calcium-aluminum inclusions that developed during the formation of the solar system – meteorites that have chondrules are called chondrites. Most meteorites (more than 85%) are chondrites and therefore stony. Many chondrites have tiny flecks of metal that can be seen with your naked eye or though a magnifying glass.
(4) Get professional help for further testing. Seeking the advice of an expert will help you avoid disappointment later on… or it might send you in a whole new direction.
- Contact a local museum, college or club — Professional geologists as well as amateur rock-hounds would be delighted to look at your unique rock and help you determine what it is. Contact them by phone or e-mail and ask if someone can look at your pictures and notes. Make an appointment to study your rock in person.
- Be prepared to leave your rock behind – If it’s something challenging, then further tests might be necessary. Some tests will involve cutting off a small piece and/or grinding a bit into powder – only a few specialists can prepare a meteorite sample properly so don’t let just anyone do it! Make sure you get the business card of whomever you leave your rock with.
- Get more than one professional opinion – Scientists frequently confer with colleagues to make sure their assessments are correct. If three scientists agree on something, it’s usually worth a publication; a new meteorite find must be officially written up.
(5) Determine a conclusion (identify your find). Based on all of the questions you’ve asked and everything you’ve learned, it’s time to come up with a verdict.
- It is a meteorite – huzzah! Now you need to officially register your meteorite with the Meteoritical Society, an international body of professional scientists who keep track of all known meteorites. Once it receives official classification and registration, then the meteorite may have a dollar value – but not before! Do not sell or give away any piece of your meteorite before you register it – the meteorite may not belong to you! A meteorite belongs to whoever owns the property on which you found it, which is why it was so important for you to record exactly where you found it. But you will always get credit for having discovered it.
- It’s not a meteorite… It’s still cool! And you discovered it! Now you know what to do next time. And you’ve met scientists (professional or amateur) who can help you in your investigations. In fact, with more study, someday you may be the one that others turn to when they find a weird rock…
Congratulations for being an excellent citizen scientist! Keep in mind that many of the most important discoveries in astronomy and planetary science are made by amateurs – from meteorites on Earth to impact scars on Jupiter, unpaid observers often find way more than professionals do because of their enthusiasm and passion. So keep a logbook with you at all times to note your observations. And keep making those discoveries!