I’m standing where blue sky meets the yellow sand of Texas desert and a chance encounter with the extraterrestrial changed forever the texture of this landscape.
Some 63,000 years ago, a school-bus-size mass of molten iron and nickel from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter plummeted to Earth here, leaving a hole 100 feet deep and 550 feet across. The explosion, three times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, spewed shrapnel for a mile and a half in every direction, punching four more small craters nearby.
I had never heard of the Texas town of Odessa until, flipping through cable channels one night, I came across “Meteorite Men” on the Discovery Science cable channel. Geoffrey Notkin and Steve Arnold, the stars, stood in a barren field while a tractor pulled a Rube Goldberg-assortment of pipes and wires -- a giant metal detector of sorts.
As with most shows like this (“UFO Hunters,” “MonsterQuest”), I expected an entertaining buildup followed by the inevitable letdown. I was wrong. Two huge meteorites, one weighing 273 pounds, the other 230 pounds, were unearthed just 8 feet beneath the surface. Who knew? Exotic locales like Antarctica, Namibia and Siberia are where such discoveries are made, right?
I contacted Notkin the next day and he, sensing my enthusiasm, invited me on a hunt. So here I am at the second- largest meteorite crater in the U.S. Over the centuries, it has partly filled with silt and most of the obvious meteorites have been scavenged. We have permission from landowner Tom Rodman to hunt with metal detectors, the proviso being that anything found will be donated to his museum.
Notkin, the elder at 49 (they share the same birthday, Feb. 1), is a devoted vegetarian who digs for the thrill of it. In his approach, he is methodical and scientific. Arnold, 44, loves meat and collects for the money. He goes more on gut instinct.
Meteorites are rare: The world inventory is less than the annual production of gold, 2,500 tons, according to Darryl Pitt, a New York collector. What actually falls to Earth, however, is a much bigger number. Most of it plunges into the 70 percent of the Earth covered by water.
Not surprisingly, a market exists for space rocks. Collectors pay from $100 for small fragments to hundreds of thousands of dollars for large, museum-worthy pieces. Metallic meteorites, the most common and the ones in Odessa, average a few dollars per gram, while those from Mars and the moon command $1,000 to $2,000 per gram.
Of the three meteorite types (metallics, stony-irons, stones), stones are by far the most prevalent. But the majority of finds are metallics because of electronic devices like metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar, both of which we have in Odessa. Hunting metallics can be frustrating, though, as we quickly discover. More often than not, the fruits of our digging turn out to be nails, bullet shells -- what the diggers call “meteor-wrongs.”
Hunting in Odessa is generally safe, though the arid climate and sandy-shrub geography make it attractive to snakes. Most are nonpoisonous but I almost step on a diamondback rattler, whose bite, untreated, can kill a man in under an hour.
The other thing to beware of here in oil country is pipeline. Sarah Cervera, a graduate student at the University of Texas El Paso, operates the $300,000 ground-penetrating radar -- good at mapping submerged metal down to 15 feet. Our team is excited to have such sophisticated equipment. But after identifying buried metal, our digger unearths large rusted cans, pipe fittings, even working gas pipeline.
After disappointment with the equipment, Arnold’s sharp eyes turn out to be our greatest asset. While driving on an isolated, unpaved access road, he spies something and asks the driver to stop. Everyone laughs, thinking he is hallucinating from a week’s worth of frustration. Sure enough, though, there are telltale reddish-black stones in the roadbed.
Shovel-picks are brought out from the back of the truck, and digging up the road quickly commences. Eventually we find over 60 pounds of space rock. Notkin’s theory is that rocks mined at a quarry near the crater contained the meteorites, and workers had spread them out on the roadbed decades ago not knowing what they were.
Later our dig is analyzed chemically by Dr. Laurence Garvie at Arizona State University. Verdict? The samples, indeed, are Odessa meteorites. As promised, we turn over our find but Rodman lets us keep a few small samples.
A few weeks later I had drinks with Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin in New York. When I offered him one of my meager “samples,” he inspected it quizzically, pocketed the rock and thanked me with a big smile.
Later, when I told the story to Pitt, the New York collector, he laughed.
“Do you know how many friends have given Buzz meteorites,” he asked. “Really nice ones?”
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