Meteors are lured from their orbits in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars by the gravitational pull of the Sun, and some of them are then attracted to the Earth.
When they arrive at night, their descent into our planet's atmosphere is marked by bright streaks of light, sometimes white and sometimes a variety of other colors which — usually — end in red (the changes are a direct indication of temperature and velocity). Daytime arrivals are traced by what appear to be trails of smoke or dust.
These displays of aerial "fireworks" and "skywriting" are frequently accompanied by thunder-like rumbles and/or an explosion . . . occasionally a buzzing, hissing, or crackling noise and, once in a while, seemingly no sound at all.
Some of these meteorites or meteors or meteoroids — colloquially called "falling stars" — burn up in our atmosphere and never reach the earth at all. Many others (thousands annually!) do make it all the way to the planet's surface, however, and that fact should be of more than passing interest to you. Why? Because a number of individuals and institutions are eager to buy these "rocks that fall from the sky." You'll never get rich catering to the market, of course, but you can pick up some extra bucks collecting meteorites. Besides, this is one "fun" treasure hunt that everybody can get in on!
Meteorites Come in Three Major Classes
All told, there are approximately 80 known varieties of meteorites, and they're generally lumped into three categories: stony, iron, and stony-iron.
The most common of the three are the stony meteors, which — as the name implies — are composed either entirely or mainly of stony minerals. The average stony also contains between 5 and 15 percent nickel-iron, and some go as high as 25 percent.
Iron meteoroids — the second most common type of "falling star" — are almost 100 percent nickel-iron. And the rarest meteorites of all — the stony-irons — are about 50-50 nickel-iron and stony material.
How to Find Meteorites
Almost all freshly fallen meteoroids are covered by a thin black or dark gray (or, in the case of an iron, slightly bluish) crust. If the meteor is left in the soil several years, this crust can change to a rusty-brown color. (The change, which starts at the surface, sometimes penetrates the whole meteorite.)
Stony meteoroids generally lack sharp edges or corners and tend to be angular or rounded (but not completely round) in shape. Irons and stony-irons, on the other hand, are usually irregularly round and have thumbprint-like impressions on them.
All three classes of meteors (except for some rare stonies that contain no nickel-iron) are generally attracted by a magnet. Most of the time, too, a stony will be about 1 1/2 times — and an iron approximately 3 times — heavier than ordinary earth rocks of the same size.
You can inspect the inside of a suspected meteorite by grinding away a small corner (don't hammer or try to break the rock because, if it is a meteor, that will lessen its value). The interior of a stony usually contains irregular specks of metal. The inside of an iron looks like a bright piece of steel. And the internal structure of a stony-iron is almost always a network of nickel-iron with meshes of olivine crystals (a yellowish or greenish mineral) or grains of nickel-iron in a stony matrix.
And leave "no stone unturned" in your search! Meteorites vary in size from a fraction of an inch across (weighing less than an ounce) to several feet in diameter (with a weight of more than 100,000 pounds).
Look for Falling Stars, Earth Man!
Most "falling stars" are witnessed in the afternoon. Some scientists state that this results from a combination of the rotation of the planet upon its axis plus the Earth's revolution around the sun. Others claim that it's simply because more people are outdoors at that time of day. Most falls occur during the Northern Hemisphere's late spring and summer months.
If you see a meteor fall nearby, you can sometimes get an approximate idea of how far away it has landed by counting the seconds from the time it vanishes behind trees, etc., to the time you hear it explode or impact on the ground. Each second represents about 1,000 feet.
To further track down a "falling star" that you or someone else has sighted, contact people who reside in the direction that the meteor was seen to go. Question each witness you find. Did he or she hear any unusual sound either during and/or after sighting the meteorite? Where was it in relation to local landmarks when it disappeared? How far away did it appear to be? How fast was it moving? Use every scrap of information you can get to zero in on the spot where the meteoroid impacted .
. . .Or Just Look for Meteorites on the Ground!
Then again, nothing says that you have to wait until you or someone you know actually sees a falling meteor before you can go out looking for one. Meteorites have been hitting the earth continually for billions of years, and a thorough search of almost any large area of land will probably turn up one or more of the "outer space" rocks.
Finding a meteoroid "cold" is, perhaps, not as difficult as you may have supposed either. Although more than 90 percent of the meteors that land on earth are stony (and tend to blend in with native rocks), most that you'll spot will be iron. And those irons will "jump out at you" because their nickel-iron content — which resists weathering — is usually conspicuously different from ordinary rocks.
Since they sometimes fragment into a thousand or more pieces, the best place to find meteorites is where they've been found before. Deserts, prairies, dry lake and riverbeds, and other arid and semi-arid regions have all proven to be good places to look.
Areas with soft ground, swamps, grasslands, marshes, and anywhere the climate is humid a great part of the time are less likely hunting grounds. Not because meteors don't land in such regions . . . but because the moisture in those areas speeds up a meteorite's decomposition, and makes it harder to identify.
What's in it for You?
While a "find" (a meteoroid that no one saw fall) isn't generally worth as much as a "fall" (a meteorite that was seen streaking toward earth), the going rate for even an extremely weathered specimen starts at $5 to $10 per pound.
If you believe you've found a meteor, send either it or a sample section of the rock (depending on the size of your find) to one of the following:
Dr. Carleton B. Moore, Director
Center for Meteorite Studies
Arizona State University
Tempe, Ariz. 85287-2504
Call or email before sending a sample
David A. Kring
Lunar and Planetary Sciences
The University of Arizona
1629 E. University Blvd.
Tucson, Arizona 85721-0092
Call or write before sending a sample.
Professor John Wasson
Institute of Geophysics
University of California at Los Angeles
Los Angeles, Calif. 90095-1567
Wasson recommends sending a grape-sized fragment of the sample.
Dr. Derek Sears
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Call or write before sending a sample.
Cascadia Meteorite Lab
Portland State University
Dept. of Geology
Room 17 Cramer Hall
1721 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97201
Before sending the sample through the mail, Dr. Ruzicka recommends emailing him an attached image of your suspected meteorite (700 kb maximum size), along with a brief description.
Any of the above gentlemen can tell you whether or not your find is really a meteor (there is no charge for this verification, but — if you want your sample back — you should enclose return postage when you mail it in). If the rock is a meteoroid, don't worry . . . you'll receive an offer for it.
In Short . . .
While I seriously doubt you'll ever find your fortune searching for this "treasure from the skies," it is exciting to note that a single good find can put several hundred dollars in your pocket. Still, the potential dollar value of any meteorite you might stumble across is incidental . . . incidental, that is, to any outdoorsman or woman who never has enough good excuses to go wandering about the countryside!
The above addresses are from the webite, Where to Send a Suspected Meteorite for Testing, ©2010.