The recent fireball that created a sonic boom across three US states also created meteorites, meaning parts of it fell to the ground, mostly in Mississippi. Finding a piece of space rock that has traveled millions of miles and may be as old as the Solar System is certainly exciting, but if you think this is your greatest contribution to science, think again. NASA doesn’t want your space rocks. So what do you do with a meteorite if you find one?
According to NASA Meteor Watch on Facebook, there have been confirmed reports of some of these recent space rocks being found in an area east of the city of Natchez and along Highway 84 in Mississippi. However, also according to NASA Meteor Watch, “We are not meteor people, as our primary goal is to protect spacecraft and astronauts from meteors. Therefore, we will not be able to identify any strange rocks you may find; please send photos of rocks, as we will not reply.”
This made us wonder, what do you do or what should you do if you find a meteorite? Are there research institutes that would be interested? How do you even know if it’s a meteorite?
Whose meteorites are they when they land?
First of all, according to US law, if you find a meteorite on your land, it’s your property. This means NASA has asked any meteor hunters in the area for permission before setting foot on people’s property in search of space rocks. However, if a meteorite is found on federal land, government officials consider it to belong to the government, and under one interpretation of the “Antiquities Act” of 1906, meteorites found on federal land actually belong to the Smithsonian Institution.
National parks and public lands generally prohibit the mining of rocks (or most natural items), although the Bureau of Land Management generally allows hobbyists to collect meteorites, with some limitations.
But how can you be sure it’s a meteorite?
NASA Meteor Watch suggests that people use the hilariously named Meteorite or Meteowrong test designed by Dr. Randy L. Korotev at Washington University in St Louis, who also asks that samples not be sent to him before people be pretty sure you have a genuine meteorite on your hands.
In general, there are four telltale signs that you have a meteorite. Due to the presence of metals (although in smaller amounts in stone meteorites), they tend to have higher density and attract magnets. They are also often irregular in shape and their surfaces, especially in stony meteorites, have a fusion crust. This is because objects burn and melt as they travel through Earth’s atmosphere.
It’s not a meteorite if it has: clear-colored crystals (quartz is commonly found on Earth but not anywhere else in the Solar System), bubbles (volcanic rocks on Earth have bubbles, but space rocks don’t), or streaks (Scratching should not leave a streak. A black or red streak suggests the iron minerals magnetite or hematite, which are not found in meteorites.)
More information on meteorite identification can be found in this guide from the University of New Mexico Meteorite Museum. However, a curious fact is that a meteor falling from the sky will be cold to the touch. Burning with air isn’t enough to heat the entire object, which has spent eons in interplanetary (or perhaps interstellar) space.
Interestingly, in the UK it’s a very different game.
In February 2021, a fireball streaked across the British sky and researchers and hobbyists alike scrambled to search for possible meteorites that might have landed. Being the first meteorite found in the UK in 30 years, they were lucky enough to find several fragments which the Natural History Museum in London made sure they received to study and put on display.
The Winchcombe meteorite, as it is now called, turned out to be one of the rarest types of meteorites. It is a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite (CM), of which there are only 15 other known CM falls out of 65,000 recorded meteorites. It is also one of 40 meteorites whose location of origin in the asteroid belt is known. You can hear all about it here in our interview with the Museum’s Dr. Helena Bates.
So who can you contact if you find a meteorite?
The UCLA Meteorite Collection suggests that people who believe they have a meteorite contact their state Geological Survey or a local university, college, or natural history museum, which might be interested in providing proper identification. There are also private firms that do that type of analysis, and some places will buy them, though if your rock isn’t rare, you may not get a good price for it.
Actually, it is of more interest and scientific value if you see the meteorite fall. In that case, you should write down where the fireball came from and where it kept going. If you find one later, photograph the item before picking it up and be sure to look around for other fragments. At that time, you can contact the experts.