A glowing orange fireball streaked across the night sky, brightening the Arizona landscape for a few fleeting seconds just before dawn on June 2.
A week after the historic sighting — which was captured on everything from home surveillance videos to NASA apparatus to police dash cams — scientists and collectors are scrambling to secure permission to recover the fragments from the object that caused it, believed to be a small asteroid.
"It's an exciting and a rare event," says Laurence Garvie, curator of Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies. "If something is found — and we're very confident something will be found — it will be only the fourth recovered meteorite fall."
The key word there is recovered.
Hundreds of meteorites are found each year. But over the past century in Arizona, there have only been three previous meteor falls in which the event was witnessed and meteorites recovered.
The first recovery dates back to 1912, in Holbrook. More 80 years passed before the second, when fragments were retrieved from an area near Indian Butte in 1998. Most recently, a 130-gram meteorite was salvaged from the Whetstone Mountains in Cochise County in 2009.
Meteorites — bits of rock created when a meteor breaks apart upon entering the Earth's atmosphere — are difficult to find. Depending on size and and scarcity, fragments can be valuable, sometimes selling for tens of thousands of dollars.
While most meteors burn up and completely disintegrate upon entry, scientists are convinced the June 2 object touched the ground.
From a NASA release about the incident:
[A] small asteroid estimated at 5 feet (1-2 meters) in diameter — with a mass of a few tons and a kinetic energy of approximately half a kiloton — entered Earth's atmosphere above Arizona just before 4 a.m. local (MST) time. NASA estimates that the asteroid was moving at about 40,200 miles per hour (64,700 kilometers per hour).
Eyewitness reports placed the object at an altitude of 57 miles above the Tonto National Forest east of the town of Payson, moving almost due south. It was last seen at an altitude of 22 miles above that same forest.
"There are no reports of any damage or injuries — just a lot of light and few sonic booms," said Bill Cooke in NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "If Doppler radar is any indication, there are almost certainly meteorites scattered on the ground north of Tucson."
"It was super bright," says Garvie. "And it was a relatively large object traveling at high speeds. That has the potential to produce a large number of small meteorites."
The burst of light was followed by a sonic boom, which reverberated over the Valley as the object broke apart over Payson.
Using Doppler radar, scientists pinpointed a quarter-mile area on the Fort Apache Reservation. Because the site is on tribal land, outsiders must secure permission to poke around.
"It's on a reservation, which is why none of us are hunting it — because it would be quite illegal," says Ruben Garcia, a meteorite collector and dealer. "If we do [get permission], I guarantee meteorites will be recovered."
Garcia, aka "Mr. Meteorite," has been hunting and dealing in meteorites since 1998. He says he sells the fragments to private collectors for up to $1,000 a gram. He also works with museums and universities to donate findings to science.
Based on the length of the fireball, its trajectory, and the fact that it exploded, Garcia believes meteorites could be spread as far as a mile and may overlap the public land of the Tonto National Forest.
"Our information is telling us that there are pieces out there between one gram and several hundred grams," says Garcia, who has amassed thousands of meteorites. "The only value that would be for me is if we could track it down to an area that is not tribal land."
Garvie, meanwhile, is in talks with Fort Apache tribal representatives to allow ASU's meteorite center — which owns the world’s largest meteorite collection — to collect and study fragments of the asteroid that landed on the reservation.
Recovering the objects is unlikely to be a walk in the park, though.
"It's exceedingly rugged terrain," Garvie says. "We'll be hiking up there day and night looking for small black rocks and hopefully distinguishing them from the other rocks that are out there."
Regardless of who secures permission to hunt on the reservation, Garvie is hopeful the material will be recovered quickly.
"I know they are only stones. But they are stones from space. And the longer they are on Earth, the more they degrade or get contaminated," he says. "And we have monsoons coming up in a few weeks. So if we are going to do this, we need to do it quickly."
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