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Metoer Hunter Article in SacBee


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Haven't posted for a while, been buried with work (and a kid in a Honda totaling our Explorer on the way to San Diego), but saw this in todays Sacramento Bee:

(Pasted so you don't have to subscribe)

The meteor hunter

He's looking for rocks strewn by the great fireball of Aug. 11.

By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg - Bee Staff Writer

Robert Ward set up a timer to photograph himself with a 70-pound meteorite he found in the desert kingdom of Oman. Now, he's hot on the trail of space rocks from a meteor that lit up the north state.

Robert Ward

SONORA, Ca -- Robert Ward climbed out of his pickup and ambled toward four guys gathered around the front porch of a Tuolumne City house.

"I'm researching a big meteor that blew up near here," he began.

Before he left a few minutes later, the guys knew how to contact him, that he'd pay for meteorites, and that he wanted to meet with anyone who'd seen the dazzling flare above Tuolumne County last weekend.

Ward had driven hard from Arizona lured by that fireball, a brilliant, booming event that shook houses, awakened families and jangled telephones for sheriff's dispatchers.

He was hunting treasure: ancient space rocks, newly fallen to earth.

To call Ward's quest a long shot understates it.

Of the hundreds of meteors each year that flare brightly enough and break apart loudly enough to prompt multiple calls to authorities, only a few worldwide lead to meteorite finds, said University of Arkansas meteor expert Derek Sears.

On top of that, Ward's search had led him to country ranging from rolling, oak-studded foothills to heavily forested Sierra peaks. A missing person's car can languish undiscovered for months there, said Tuolumne County Sheriff's Lt. Dan Bressler.

Ward hoped to narrow his search by persuading witnesses to stand with him, exactly where they saw the fireball, and show him its arc through the sky. He took measurements with an azimuth compass and noted his position with a GPS, gathering data to pump into mapping software.

"I've talked with witnesses on three sides now, north of it, south of it and east of it," he said late Thursday afternoon, on his first full day in California.

He was wearing a black baseball cap, decorated with a redhead sitting astride a blazing meteor. Ward's black T-shirt bore a sketched meteorite and Norwegian lettering, the souvenir of a previous expedition.

Ward is among a growing cadre of meteorite collectors, a field that has boomed with the Internet and improved hunting technologies.

"I've never been involved in a group that was so passionate and obsessive about their hobby," said Geoffrey Notkin, an Arizonan who has bought, sold and searched for meteorites for 15 years.

While many people devote occasional weekends to the hobby, a few make a living, mostly traveling to known sites in deserts or ice fields strewn with meteorites that fell long ago. They search there, using sophisticated metal detectors.

"The most successful hunters are bold and determined and willing to spend a lot of time," Notkin said.

Ward, at 30, qualifies for at least two out of three. He describes himself as an investor, who has meteorites on display in every room of his house in Prescott, Ariz., and who rarely sells his finds.

The burst of light that drew Ward to Sonora was not the streak of a typical falling star, but its much brighter cousin, called a fireball.

While not rare, a fireball "is so spectacular we are poorly calibrated to handle it," said Sears, director of the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences. People often remember the objects as closer, brighter and slower than they really were.

Even among fireballs, this one stood out, said Robert Lunsford, operations manager of the American Meteor Society, who keeps the society's fireball log.

"This is one of the top 10 events I've had since I began recording back in 2005," he said, because so many observers mentioned a delayed sonic boom.

Just after midnight on Aug. 11, it was seen from Fair Oaks to San Francisco to Gilroy, and filmed by a Yuba City sky watcher, but the fireball made its most dramatic appearance above Tuolumne County.

"We got reports from all ends of the county. It was either bright blue or bright green. It lit up the entire sky. It lit up Lake Melones so somebody could see every boat on the lake. The houses shook," said Bressler. Every deputy on patrol called in, 911 lines were briefly flooded, and throughout the 24 hours, dispatchers handled 200 more calls than usual.

"It was pretty wild," said sheriff's Cpl. Kelly Dickson, who was driving home when the sky above his truck lit up twice. "I saw the object explode up in the sky ... a couple of fragments that were still glowing split off. ... One was headed east and the other was headed in a northerly direction."

From Dickson's description, Sears concluded the sheriff's officer was probably close to the retardation point, where a speeding meteor hits denser atmosphere like a rock slamming into a wall. The force shatters the rock along its cracks, and whatever reaches the earth's surface is called a meteorite. Often, consumed by heat, nothing is left to fall.

Based on what the officer saw, Sears said, "There is a very good chance that there are rocks around the ground somewhere," probably no closer than 10 miles to Dickson's location and up to roughly 60 miles north and east.

Science still has "tons and tons" to learn from meteorites, the professor said. Although they've been probed extensively in labs, "almost yearly something new turns up."

Some of the rarest meteorites come from the moon or Mars, and others from comets, but most are believed to speed earthward from the asteroid belt, where rocks owe their origin to the beginning of the solar system.

"You're holding a rock in your hand that's 4 1/2 billion years old, that formed when we barely had an Earth," Sears said, adding that meteorites still give him goose bumps. "There are sprinklings in there of dust from other star systems."

Meteorite hunters are as captivated as researchers, but there's a tension there, too.

"We wouldn't have some fraction of the meteorites we have if it weren't for those guys. On the other hand, they prostitute our science because they buy and sell these precious scientific objects. They make jewelry out of them. We do wish they weren't so cavalier," Sears said.

Like most of those who want to authenticate a find, Ward said he sends samples to a university, which keeps a portion in exchange for the analysis.

Meteorites can sell for as little a dollar or so to well into the tens of thousands, with some spectacular finds topping $1 million. A link to a specific fireball, like the one over Tuolumne County, boosts value.

Ward said he's willing to spend what's needed to find these meteorites, if any can be found. He has already lined up people to help him walk a search area, once he zeros in on a potential location.

He has metal detectors at the ready, to pick up the iron found in the vast majority of meteorites. He's prepared, he said, to compensate landowners, who own any meteorites that fall on their property unless they've sold mineral rights to someone else.

On Friday, after heading higher and higher into the Sierra, Ward predicted he's still at least a few days away from a foot search.

He'll be looking for black rocks the size of pebbles, or maybe if he's lucky, basketballs

Scott

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Hi All,

I know Robert Ward, he is a very good meteorite hunter that doesn't limit himself to known falls. This guy is all over the world picking them up. It's what I'd be doing if I didn't have 3 young boys to raise! For now I'll have to be satisfied with hunting the southwest.

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