JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A fireball that blazed across the skies of northern Florida on Jan. 24 caught the attention of The American Meteor Society -- and some lucky meteorite hunters.
A meteoroid entered the atmosphere at 10:30 a.m., and a combination of friction, pressure and chemical reactions caused gases to heat up and expand, creating a fireball. Most meteoroids that enter the atmosphere disintegrate during the process. Occasionally, the meteoroid is large enough to make it to the surface of the Earth, at which time it is called a meteorite.
When reports of the fireball started rolling in to The American Meteor Society, meteorite hunter Larry Atkins happened to be on vacation in Florida, visiting his father.
"Basically, I was on vacation in Palmetto, Florida, and just by chance there was a fireball here,” Atkins said. “I immediately heard about it, because I keep in touch with these types of things, and so I got in the car the next day and started driving, and on my way up, I called Mike Hankey and asked him if he had any good data on it."
Hankey did have good data on the fireball. He had over 80 reported sightings and images from Doppler radar showing the space rocks over the Osceola National Forest.
"He went ahead and sent me the Doppler radar and the AMS reports. Once I had all the information, I knew exactly where to go,” Atkins said. “This is the scenario you are looking for. We've got Doppler radar, multiple witnesses, this makes the search a lot easier. In the old days, before Doppler radar, a meteorite hunter would have to go out and interview literally hundreds of witnesses, and then triangulate based on eyewitnesses from different locations and try to get a trajectory to go out and try to find the rock. That's the hard way."
Atkins, Hankey and a team of assembled meteorite hunters set out to try to find where the fireball might have landed.
"It was in the Osceola National Forest, approximately halfway between Sanderson and Lake City,” Atkins said. “It was out in the swamp. In fact, it was so swampy, five out of the six stones were actually found in the roads, because the prospect of hunting in the swamp is not good."
The conditions were less than ideal for meteorite hunting. The vast, dense, swampy forest camouflaged the small meteorites the team was hunting for. Making their way through the forest was beyond tough, too.
Atkins said the team saw cottonmouth snakes, bear tracks and was constantly battling insects like spiders and ticks.
“You've got to have a little bit of crazy to walk around deserts and swamps for weeks and weeks to find them, so it's very difficult to find them," Atkins said.
Florida's moisture, salt air, humidity and dense vegetation with regular rain make the chance of finding a meteorite even less likely.
To find a "witnessed fall" like this is a very rare event. Usually when a witnessed fall is recovered, it's because it landed in a city environment or a populated area. Those meteorites are found right away, typically after they hit a car or a house and somebody walks out and finds them on the sidewalk.
"This particular meteorite was exceptionally difficult to recover because there were no people out there. It was in the forest,” Atkins said. “All we had was the radar data to go by, so it's still a needle in a thousand haystacks to find a single stone. Florida is kind of an inhospitable place. It's probably one of the worst places in this country to look for a meteorite. When meteorites reach Earth, it's a very hostile environment. They immediately start to terrestrialize when they hit the Earth.
“Here in Florida you have all this moisture and salty air, and humidity, etc, so these stones, they hit the ground, they punch in, and then you get a couple of rains, and they just go deeper,” he said. “Then the plants grow up and the leaves fall, etc., and they're gone. It's just over, so we got very lucky. We were very fortunate to find these six rocks. All of them were buried, except for one, and when I say buried, I mean level with the ground -- just the surface of them were sticking out."
The team found six meteorites over the course of a few weeks of intensive and challenging searching.
"Florida right now had five meteorites, prior to this one, so I think this one makes six, but prior to this one there was only one witnessed fall. It was in Orlando. Only one stone was recovered, and it hit an object,” Atkins said. “It either hit a house or a car or something like that, so that stone was recovered, so that was Florida's only witnessed fall. This is the second witnessed fall to be recovered in the state of Florida, and it was actually the only witnessed fall in Florida that was recovered by meteorite hunters versus just happenstance or hitting a car or something like that.”
Atkins said that after making the exciting discovery, a piece was immediately sent off to UCLA.
“There's a number of universities that can do the work,” Atkins said. “UCLA is one of the universities that I use. Once it gets there, Dr. Allen Rubin will do a classification. He will cut the stone. He's going to make a thin section, they are going to put it in a microprobe, and they are going to analyze it and find out what it's made of, and then they are going to basically classify it. They are going to put it in a box so to speak, say, 'This is an L Chondrite' or 'This is an H Chondrite,' etc."
Finding a meteorite is rare on a global scale, as well.
"This meteorite originated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter,” Atkins said. “I couldn't tell you how many miles it is, but I know it's quite a few million miles, so it's a long way away. It's been flying around out there for 4.56 billion years, and something has knocked it out of its orbit, so then it was put into an Earth-crossing orbit, so the Earth's going around the sun and this thing's doing what it's doing and eventually they meet up, and it comes in as a bright fireball and it's approximately the size of a car or truck. This particular one was a very large, daytime fireball. That's rare. This was witnessed in the daytime by hundreds, thousands of people actually. That implies that it was a very large body to be seen in the daylight."
Atkins' lifelong passion for exploring turned into meteorite hunting in the late '90s. He gives educational presentations to children and other groups, giving people the once-in-a-lifetime chance to hold a piece of the moon, Mars and meteorites from the asteroid belt.
Atkins said he loves giving the presentations.
"I would like for people to know what this actually represents. What this is is the original material that our solar system is made of,” he said. “So basically what you have here is 4.56 billion-year-old virgin material that has never been through the geological processes that we are familiar with here on Earth, so that's what's special about this. When you hold this you are holding the beginning of our solar system. There's nothing else rarer."