There’s meteorites in them there hills!

07 Dec

The adventure began just after midnight on November 18 when a bolide meteor– possibly a stray from the Leonid shower– streaked through the night sky over Tooele County and sparked a public frenzy.  The fireball, which was seen as far away as California, hit Earth’s atmosphere with such intensity that it had to be measured in terawatts.  Those fortunate enough to witness the event were treated to the light show of their lifetimes.

The above is a compilation of several clips from Salt Lake City area security cameras that captured the falling meteor.  The following originally appeared in the December 3, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Silky clouds crept over the Stansbury Mountains and began spilling rapidly into the range’s western canyons.  An unrelenting wind tossed large tumbleweeds helplessly across Skull Valley.  The scene might have been ripped straight from an epic western film– one with a major science fiction twist.

My sons Bridger (8) and Weston (7) and I marched along a bare stretch of terrain, our eyes trained on the ground, scanning every inch of dirt for remnants of another world.  What would a meteorite look like?  We didn’t know exactly.  But the prospect of freshly fallen space rock was too appealing to pass up.

Our method wasn’t scientific.  Most of the technical legwork had already been completed by astronomers and devout meteorite hunters the country over.  Tap that mass collaboration, I thought, and we just might have a shot.

The adventure began just after midnight on November 18 when a bolide meteor– possibly a stray from the Leonid shower– streaked through the night sky over Tooele County and sparked a public frenzy.  The fireball, which was seen as far away as California, hit Earth’s atmosphere with such intensity that it had to be measured in terawatts.  Those fortunate enough to witness the event were treated to the light show of their lifetimes.

Regional seismograph stations recorded vibrations that seem to have been generated by the meteor’s sonic boom.  The event was captured by several Salt Lake area surveillance cameras.  Footage was given to media outlets, who promptly broadcasted it and posted it online.  Astronomers recognized the phenomenon and scrambled to calculate the details.  Local experts estimated that the meteor exploded at about 20 kilometers above the earth’s surface and its fragments dispersed somewhere over western Utah.

Like the fireball’s appearance, the response by meteorite hunting groups was both intense and brief.  News of the “witnessed fall” quickly reached Mike Bandli, founder of Historic Meteorites, a private meteorite collecting and hunting organization based in Washington State.  He immediately called his hunting partner, Rob Wesel, and told him to take some time off work.  In the last year Bandli and Wesel have recovered meteorites from three separate falls and were ready to spend their Thanksgiving scouring Tooele County’s deserts.  With the help of meteorite modeling expert Robert Matson, the team began to aggregate data.

Step one was crowdsourceing.  Bandli posted a request for eyewitness accounts in the comments section of a Salt Lake Tribune article about the event.  The team then turned to the video footage.  The flash lit up surrounding mountains, revealing the cameras’ angles in relation to them.

A fresh meteorite has a charcoal-like fusion crust with a chipped off portion revealing the bright interior (courtesy Mike Bandli,

The team used the camera locations available online to map each location in Google Earth.  Using five accurate camera angles, Bandli and crew determined that the meteorite distribution, or strewn field, was somewhere on Dugway Proving Ground.  Other groups arrived at this same conclusion, which one anonymous Internet poster called “statistically unfortunate.”

And so the effort screeched to a halt.  Fellow meteorite hunters that had been dispatched to Utah tried unsuccessfully to collect more information.  Seismic data gave only an expansive area where the fireball occurred, and the fall failed to register any usable Doppler radar data.

Bandli and Wesel, who were ready to fly into Salt Lake that day, contacted Dugway but were denied access.  Dugway spokeswoman Paula Nicholson confirmed that some groups had contacted the facility to gain access but were denied.  She said there’s no evidence yet that anything landed there, but promised to keep the public informed of any findings.

I came across Bandli’s Tribune comment while parsing media reports.  I contacted him and he was happy give me a peek at the complex world of meteorite hunting.

“We often work in small teams that consist of people we trust or work well with,” Bandli told me.“It is important that the data we collect and information we release be managed in a controlled manner. We don’t want irresponsible would-be hunters trespassing on people’s land or creating a spectacle.”

Once the team identifies a portion of the strewn field, the hard science takes a back seat to simple visual analysis.  “We rely heavily on our eyes,” Bandli said.

And instinct.  Some hunters carry magnetized canes to probe the ground (most meteorites attract magnets), but experienced hunters like Bandli can identify meteorites visually.

“They’re black, burned rocks that look out of place.  In many cases they are chipped or broken revealing a bright or grayish interior,” he said.  The team walks in a gridding pattern to accurately sample areas.  When meteorites are discovered, they begin to map the strewn field.  Smaller meteorite fragments lie toward the strewn field’s tail and grow in size toward its head.  Finds are meticulously detailed to maximize their scientific value.

“Dugway is a hunter’s dream,” Bandli lamented.  “Looking for black rocks on a flat and bright salt floor– it could have been a historic recovery.”

Still, Bandli understands the security situation at the facility and hopes the military can conduct its own successful search.  “There is good reason to keep people off that property,” he said.  “We respect whatever decision Dugway makes.”

But the meteorite hunting community may not be entirely out of luck.  Bandli said some data suggests that fragments may have broken off of the meteor early and landed in rugged terrain immediately northeast of Dugway.  Calculations proposed to Paula Nicholson by the Discovery Channel also place the strewn field northward.. Despite recent reports placing the termination point even further west, Bandli remains confident in his Dugway triangulation.

“Basically what we have is a huge search area,” he said.  “The only way we’ll know for sure is for somebody to find a piece.”

The boys and I had chosen a flat area on the flanks of the Cedar Mountains a safe distance north of the Proving Grounds.  We walked a criss-cross pattern, finding a few rocks looked out of place but that didn’t match Bandli’s description.  We left empty-handed but hopeful that somewhere in this no-man’s-land lies a trove of otherworldly fragments, waiting to be discovered.


2 responses to “There’s meteorites in them there hills!

  1. Steve Taylor

    December 7, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    re: Utah meteor

    On Nov 18 at 12:07AM, I was driving east bound on I-70, about 13 miles west of Green River. I experienced an intense light show, first red then turning a blue-green and lasting 10-15 seconds before the meteor explosion. I saw the object within a second after the explosion and witnessed a very large smoke trail. The videos from Salt Lake show it at a near 45 degree angle and traveling from right to left. My view from the eastern side of the San Rafael Swell area was of a trajectory at 80-85 degrees judging from the object and its smoke trail. An angle that steep would place me nearer to its path. After explosion, the object clearly moved away from me in a westerly direction. But, I would think the videos from Salt Lake would have shown it traveling from left to right. If it was traveling from north to south then my view of the object would have shown it at a much shallower 45 degrees or so.

    This leaves me in a quandary as to its path. I would appreciate any comment as this is clearly the most amazing event that I have ever witnessed.

    Steve Taylor
    Idledale, CO

  2. Anthony Davis

    August 8, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    has any one found it


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