A meteor-obsessed scientist believes NASA’s analysis of the fireball that streaked across the sky in western Maine on Tuesday is wrong, and said Friday that the meteor probably did produce meteorites that hit the ground.

After analyzing video footage, seismic data and wind conditions, aerospace scientist Rob Matson has released a map showing a U-shaped area 3 miles wide and 10 miles long north of the Rangeley Lake region where he believes meteorites from Tuesday’s fireball are likely to have landed.

But Bill Cooke, NASA’s meteoroid specialist, still thinks the space rock burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere and that none of the chunks reached the ground. And even if they did, Cooke said, they’re going to be hard to find in Maine’s dense woods. Especially in black fly season.

Cooke, who runs the space agency’s meteoroid environment office, said he’s seen no evidence that pieces of the meteoroid survived into the lower atmosphere, where they likely would have been detected by sensitive Doppler radar, which is used in weather forecasting.

“I’m not going to say absolutely it didn’t produce meteorites on the ground, but I have not seen a Doppler signature that would suggest that,” Cooke said Friday night from the Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville, Alabama.

Darryl Pitt, a meteorite collector and chair of the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum’s meteorite advisory council, agreed that there’s no Doppler “signature,” but he said that’s not unusual, since the devices might have been pointed in the wrong direction during the short period when the space rock was flying through the atmosphere over Maine. He said his own analysis of the recordings and seismic readings during the event tells him that the interplanetary debris, called a meteoroid for chunks of 1 meter or less and an asteroid when larger, made it to the ground, where the pieces are called meteorites. A meteor is the light emitted by the debris as it burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.

“The thing definitely split in the upper atmosphere, but the most telling thing is it kept on going and going and going,” said Pitt, who’s based in New York City. “It’s not where it was originally predicted.”

He said videos of the fireball, the term for a meteor that is brighter than the planet Venus, help meteorite hunters triangulate the rock’s path through the atmosphere, and an analysis of wind and weather data is used to refine the likely path.

While the area that Pitt and Matson identified is private property, Pitt said logging roads appear to criss-cross the region, giving hope to meteorite hunters who might search the area.

The Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, which will open next spring in Bethel, is offering $20,000 for a 1-kilogram chunk, or roughly 2.2 pounds, of verified meteorite, The museum might pay less than that for smaller pieces, said Barbra Barrett, director of the museum, and Pitt said private collectors also probably would be in the market for verifiable meteorites.

A caution to prospective meteorite hunters, however, anyone planning to go into the woods to search should first obtain permission before trekking onto someone else’s property, Pitt said.

Barrett said hunters of space treasure should look for rocks that are unlike others in the Maine woods, most likely with a black exterior, known as a fusion crust, created by the rock’s fiery trip through the atmosphere.

She, too, suggested that any hunters get permission from the property owners first and reach an agreement on how to split the proceeds if a meteorite is located. By law, any meteorite found on private property belongs to the landowner, unless there is an agreement about splitting the object or its value after it is found.

Pitt said even smaller pieces of meteorite could be valuable because museums and collectors spend dearly for the extraterrestrial objects, especially if they are connected to a meteor that was seen by many and captured on video.

Pitt expects to be in Maine searching next week. He has been searching for and finding meteorites for years, and said it’s usually easier if the space rock falls into a desert, rather than dense woods.

He said one of the most famous meteorites was one that smashed into a 1980 Chevy Malibu in Peekskill, New York, after it tore through the Earth’s atmosphere on Oct. 9, 1992. It was one of the most videotaped meteors on record as it streaked through the sky over the northeastern U.S. sky on a Friday night, when many moms and dads caught it on camcorders – remember them? – while they were at high school football games.

Pitt said he is so enamored by meteorites that he bought the Malibu, which still features a prominent dent in its trunk.

No one has been killed by a meteorite, he said, although a cow in Venezuela was not so fortunate. Pitt said the cow was found dead in a field with a meteorite next to it.

The rancher’s family “decided to have a steak dinner that night,” he said.

 


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