Meteorite hunters changing direction in search of space rocks

2013-12-14T00:00:00Z Meteorite hunters changing direction in search of space rocksBy Kimberly Matas Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Scientists and meteorite hunters are revising their search area after a fireball passed over the Tucson area earlier in the week.

Just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, a massive fireball — or meteoroid — entered the Earth’s atmosphere, causing a sonic boom and a spectacular light show for those lucky enough to be gazing skyward.

The next morning, meteorite hunters were scouring the northwest side looking for chunks of space rock.

Since the initial fall, though, searchers have reviewed Doppler radar data and several photos taken by observatory sky cameras and determined the meteoroid came down farther west. As far as 20 miles west of Marana, estimated Vishnu Reddy, a research scientist at the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute.

That estimate seems to back up some eyewitness accounts.

Debbie Roe and her dog, Benny, were outside when they saw the fireball blow past their Picture Rocks neighborhood.

“It was weird. I had just come home from work and my dog and I were walking out to get the mail and we walked down the front steps and I saw this thing shoot across,” Roe said. “I thought it was a plane, then all of the sudden it turned light blue and the whole sky lit up. I didn’t hear any boom at all. I heard something that made me look up, then the whole sky lit up for two seconds and then nothing.”

The last time Roe saw the meteoroid, it was heading west past Picture Rocks.

Connie Lauth was stargazing in the Tucson Mountains when she saw the fireball.

“I was first enveloped in brilliant white light and when I looked up, saw streaking above and then to the south of me a huge disc with fragments sparking off and an amazing, fanned-out tail of white and green,” she said.

Lauth, who didn’t hear any sounds associated with the meteoroid, saw the fireball disappear behind the Tucson Mountains and suspects it landed west of Wasson Peak.

Most of the bright light coming from a meteoroid drops off at about 40 miles above the Earth and it enters “dark flight,” Reddy said.

It’s the final dark descent that makes it difficult to pinpoint where the meteorite met the ground, though Reddy is confident it landed in the desert west of the Tucson Mountains.

John Keepers was taking video of his daughter’s soccer game in midtown when he and other Canyon del Oro High School soccer parents saw something fall from the sky. The girls were playing on the Rincon High field at North Swan Road at East Fifth Street.

“It was really close. You could hear the sizzle, just like … shrapnel from an exploding firework,” he said. “Sizzling through the air as it broke up.

“It is impossible to say whether a meteorite survived, but the burnout ended no more than 100 to 200 feet above the ground, and I would estimate the piece landed in the midtown neighborhood due west of the Rincon High stadium,” Keepers said.

They heard the falling object just as the first half of the game was ending around 7:10 p.m., “then later, during halftime, the girls said they heard the boom sound. I don’t know if that was delayed sonic boom, but we definitely saw it and heard it,” he said

Unfortunately, Reddy said, “unless they saw stones hitting the ground, it is very difficult to guess the location of the fall based on eyewitness reports of the fireball.”

Wherever it landed, Reddy said it would be fairly small.

As it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the meteoroid was estimated to measure about 16 inches in diameter and weigh about 100 pounds. By the time it hit the ground, the burn-off could have left the largest chunk as small as 5 or 10 pounds, he said.

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or 573-4191.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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