Hunting for Meteorites

This story begins on April 14, 2010 when we first heard of a fireball being reported in the southwest part of Wisconsin. It was visible over Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri around 10:15 p.m., and was accompanied by a sonic boom that was heard for hundreds of miles.

Although the Lyrid meteor shower wasn’t scheduled to start for a few more days, it was later determined that this fireball originated in our asteroid belt. Astronomers thought that the meteoroid may have originally been up to six feet wide and weighed roughly a thousand pounds.

Two days after the fireball, the first piece of the meteorite was verified by UW-Madison scientists. It was found to be a stoney chondrite found near Livingston, WI.



Soon after the first piece was found, meteorite hunters started converging on southwestern Wisconsin from all over the world. Articles like the following started appearing in the national media.



What was so great about this fall was that it landed in an area that was mostly agriculture and the fields had not yet been turned. Meteorite hunters could just walk through the fields and look for black stones lying on the top of the dirt.

Someone in the press likened it to a gold rush. A crew from the Discovery Channel was there, and a teaser for an episode of the Meteorite Men said that “…it was perhaps the most publicized meteorite fall in history, and swarms of meteorite hunters flooded the scene in hopes of securing a piece of this famed fireball.”

Amy and I watched all this excitement, and it got us started researching meteorites. After all, the press coverage was giving the impression that meteorites were knee deep in some places, and people were paying $10-$20 a gram to buy pieces outright, so finally, one day in late August, Amy and I got a wild hair and headed south to find our own meteorites before the snow covered them all up.

On Saturday, August 21, 2010, almost exactly four months after that historic fall, Amy and I rolled into Mineral Point.



We chose to work with rare earth Neodymium magnets made from neodymium, iron, boron and other minor elements. We use a grade called N42. Because  these meteorites were lying right on top of the ground, these magnets were secured (duct taped) on the heads of golf clubs and pulled on strings. (If we were searching an older fall where meteorites might be partially buried, we’d need a metal detector). Here’s Amy just outside of Mineral Point swinging a golf club and pulling a magnet on a string.



Almost everywhere we went on our trip we found lots of material that was attracted by magnets, but nothing that had a fusion crust.



Below is a radar overlay of the strewn field that appeared on the Internet shortly after the first pieces were found. The strewn field is the area in which meteor fragments fell, and in this case, it was estimated to be 2.1 miles wide and at least 16.37 miles long (from smallest to largest piece found). The path of the fireball took it over Preston, WI, past Mifflin, and out further beyond Mineral Point, dropping meteorites along the way.

Because the meteorite angle of fall was very shallow with an 11 degree angle of descent, it’s been estimated by experts that the strewn field could be as long as 25 miles and may hold up to 500 pounds of meteorites, a few as large as bowling balls.

Amy and I were down there looking for the fragment scientists suspect is lying in this area – a fragment possibly about the size of a car engine and worth more than a half-million dollars.



We each took turns either walking along country roadsides sweeping the ground with magnets taped on the end of golf clubs.



Even though our search took us far from town, we often had an audience along the way.



Well this certainly looked like a meteorite from a distance, but once I got close, it just hopped away. Plus, it didn’t appear to have any fusion crust on it.



Livingston really took advantage of their notoriety.



The rare earth magnets were so strong they easily picked up railroad ties.



Amy and I searched a few cemeteries on this trip, including this one in the middle of nowhere that we stumbled across.



This was surely a giant chunk of the fireball that all the scientists and towns people missed, but Lynn’s eagle eye caught it as we whizzed towards town near dusk.



Oh well. Guess it wasn’t an overlooked piece of meteorite after all.



Amy’s husband knew a farmer near Miflin who thought he might have a piece of the Mifflin meteor, so we stopped by to take a look. Turned out it was slag, which is a rock-like substance leftover from smelting ore.



Here are a few pictures of what we were REALLY looking for. These meteorites were found by hunters who searched the farm fields shortly after the fall.




After three days of intense searching, we ended up with a lot of rusty nails, railroad spikes, weird red clay, and sore feet, although we do have a few small possibilities and lots of black dust (stardust?). We didn’t find any of the boulders, but we haven’t given up. A few weeks after our road trip, Amy spent some time in Door County looking in some farmer’s rock piles. That’s a lot of rocks to look through!



Amy and I also accompanied a local metal detector group, the Treasure Seekers, on a field trip to the EAA fairgrounds, where we learned how to use a metal detector to find buried meteorites.



A few months after our trip, we gave a presentation about our adventures to the Neville Public Museum Astronomical Society. Here’s a slide that encompasses all that we learned:



Amy and I are still looking for that elusive meteorite. Following a meteor shower this spring, Amy and I went to a nearby high school and  searched the grounds, landscaping and parking lot. All we found were a few nails and this rusty old shovel.




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