Catch A Falling Star

by Stephen J. Bespalko

Lithosphere (November 1996); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

[Ed. Note: This article won second place in the adult article competition in the California Federation of Mineralogical Societies in 1996.]

On October 3, 1996, a large fireball was seen over many parts of the southwestern United States. The size of the meteor appears to make this a very rare event, and offers club members the opportunity to hunt for a piece of the meteor, which is believed to have made it to the ground. Additionally, there is an opportunity to help internationally renowned scientists with their investigation of the meteor fall, along with the possibility of winning a reward for finding a piece of the meteorite. (Also, it wouldn't hurt to have a chunk of this baby in your collection.)

Mark Boslough, of Sandia National Laboratories, and John Wasson, of UCLA, have developed a hypothesis of what happened. They suggest that the object first entered the earth's atmosphere at about 8 p.m. MDT on October 3, 1996, east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The trajectory of the meteor was roughly east-north-east from there, towards the Texas Panhandle. While it descended at a shallow angle, it slowed and aerodynamic forces began to break it apart. Fragments could be seen falling from the main body of the meteor along the path that the meteor followed.

Boslough and Wasson believe that the main meteor fragment had sufficient momentum to carry it back into space, where it circled the earth once before reentering the atmosphere over California. Until fragments of the meteor are collected in both California and Texas (or possibly New Mexico), they can't prove that the two fireballs seen that night are part of the same meteor; however, the likelihood of the two events being linked is quite high, Boslough asserts. The fact that the two fireballs were on such a similar path, the time between the events, and the location of the two meteor falls all lead them to suspect that the two events are linked.

Since I work at Sandia National Laboratories, I gave Dr. Boslough a call to find out what new information had come to light since the latest set of news articles on the meteor were published in the papers. He told me they had just completed the analysis of the seismic signals from the earthquake sensing system in California. The fact that the instruments intended for detecting earthquakes were able to record the sonic boom from the (hypothesized) reentry of the meteor is an indication of how large an event this was. Enough of the sensors picked up the sonic boom to give scientists a very accurate indication of the California trajectory. They believe that the bulk of the meteorites fell just west of Little Lake, California, in and around the China Lake Weapons Testing Area, and perhaps as far east as the Panamint Valley.

Boslough believes that the meteor is not a metal meteorite. The evidence collected so far leads him to believe that this is a "stony" or chondrite meteorite. He suspects this because metal meteors tend not to come apart in the air, while this one may have blown apart twice. Pictures of this type of meteorite can be found in Rocks From Space by O. Richard Norton, which I reviewed in the Lithosphere [August/September 1994]. In particular, see Chapter 17, "Hunting For Meteorites," which shows what stony meteorites look like in the environment in which the fragments are believed to have fallen in California.

Dr. Wasson is offering a reward for a piece of this meteorite, and may be contacted at the following address: Dr. John Wasson; UCLA, Institute of Geophysics; Los Angeles, CA 90095.

For those with Internet access, the email address for Boslough is Wasson can be reached at They would like to hear from anyone who saw the meteor, has video tapes or pictures showing the meteor, or anyone believing they found a piece of the meteorite.

The scientific interest in this meteor is based on the rarity of a "capture and reentry" event, as this one appears to be. There have been only a small number of similar events recorded. The most recent event of this type was the well-publicized "Peekskill Fireball" that occurred on October 9, 1992, in which a meteor crashed into a car parked in a driveway in Peekskill, New York -- thus the name. Prior to that, there was a fireball seen in August 1972: The meteor was not captured by the Earth's gravitational pull, but thrown into a new orbit after grazing the atmosphere. Based on data that included a film taken by a tourist in Grand Teton National Park, scientists believe that the meteor could return next year on August 11.

If you find a piece of the recent meteor (or any meteorite, for that matter), there are a few things you can do to help the scientific inquiry. Boslough suggests that, even if you want to keep the fragment, to document the location where the meteorite was found as accurately as possible. They would especially like pictures of the fragment before it is moved, showing the fragment in relationship to its surroundings. If you don't have a way to accurately determine the location of the fragment (such as with a Global Positioning System unit), simply mark the site and notify the scientists mentioned above. Any information they receive of this nature will greatly aid their work. Boslough indicates that he does not believe that handling the fragments will damage them in any way or diminish the information they can extract from an examination. He said he would also be interested in knowing if there are any obvious marks on the ground around the site where the fragment(s) are found.

Copyright © 1996 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the November 1996 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002