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First meteorite fragments found in South Texas

Radar image showing the area where the meteor was spotted
NWS Brownsville
Radar image showing the area where the meteor was spotted

Several fragments of the meteor that fell in South Texas on Feb. 15 were recently recovered. Some of the meteorite hunters are members of the American Meteor Society, an organization that tracks these types of fireball events and publishes information so meteorite hunters have a better idea of where to search. Mike Hankey, operations manager of the American Meteor Society, spoke with TPR’s Jerry Clayton.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Clayton: On average, how many objects like this one that fell in Texas enter the Earth's atmosphere?

Hankey: This was a bigger than normal meteor. So maybe of this size, maybe it's like once a week on the globe. This is a big event. There's no doubt about it.

Clayton: So what do we know so far about this fall that occurred in Texas?

Hankey: So this is actually a very interesting meteor that occurred in Texas [because] it was part of a triplet of events that occurred over three different days in three different countries. The first one was in France. There was an asteroid that was actually detected a few hours before it impacted Earth by telescopes, and that created a lot of excitement.

There was another event the very next day in Italy, where a fragment of a meteor … hit the ground and was found right away.

And then the next day was this Texas event. [It] happened during the daytime. It was still light outside, which also makes it a little bit special.

It occurred on the 10th anniversary of the Chelyabinsk meteor … in Russia. It was the largest meteor that's hit Earth in 50 years. And it blew up above the city and caused all of these windows – 2000 windows were [smashed], and people went to the hospital.

Clayton: How difficult was it to pinpoint the area where these objects fell in South Texas?

Hankey: It was narrowed down pretty well through a system of Doppler weather radar that the United States government has that's accessible to everyone. It goes out on the NOAA website. …

The really hard part is knowing where in the radar to look, what time and what location do you want to look for this signature. But when you do find it, the meteorites are pretty much right underneath the Doppler radar. And that's the case here. And that's happened a couple of dozen times in the U.S. over the last ten years.

American Meteor Society member Robert Ward found the first fragment on a ranch in Starr County
Robert Ward
American Meteor Society
American Meteor Society member Robert Ward found the first fragment on a ranch in Starr County

Clayton: What typically happens to these fragments after they're recovered?

Hankey: Say, a meteorite hunter is going to want to have it classified, which means that you have to donate a percentage of it to scientific institutions. They do these tests. They do these analyses. They end up determining the type of meteorite that it is, and they write up a little paper that gets put into a database. That process has only happened about 1,400 times in the history of humankind.

So these types of meteorite files are very rare. They don't occur very often, and they are handled in a special way to record them from there. Some material might be studied, but most of it is going to be sold in collectors markets. It'll be broken up into smaller fragments.

I'm sure this one is going to have several studies done beyond just the classification because they're going to at least be looking in to see if it's related to these other meteorites that happened recently. Some go into private hands, some go to institutions and they're studied.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.