The recent bolide that created a sonic boom across three US states also created meteorites, meaning parts of it hit the ground, mainly in Mississippi. Finding a piece of space rock that has traveled millions of miles and may be as old as the Solar System is certainly exciting but if you're thinking this is your great contribution to science, think again. NASA doesn't want your space rocks. So, what do you do with a meteorite if you find one?
According to NASA Meteor Watch on Facebook, there have been confirmed reports of some of these recent space rocks found in an area east of the city of Natchez and along Highway 84 in Mississippi. However, also according to NASA Meteor Watch, "We are not meteorite people, as our main focus is protecting spacecraft and astronauts from meteoroids. So we will be unable to identify any strange rocks you may find — please do not send us rock photos, as we will not respond."
This made us wonder, what do you do or what should you do if you find a meteorite? Are there research institutes that would be interested? How do you even know if it is a meteorite?
Who owns meteorites when they land?
Firstly, according to US law, if you find a meteorite on your land, you own it. This means NASA has asked any meteor hunters in the area to ask permission before they step onto people's property in the pursuit of space rocks. However, if a meteorite is found on federal lands, then government officials consider it to belong to the government and, under an interpretation of the 1906 "Antiquities Act," meteorites found on federal lands actually belong to the Smithsonian Institution.
National parks and public lands generally prohibit the removal of rocks (or most natural items) from them, although the Bureau of Land Management generally allows meteorites to be collected by hobbyists, with some limitations.
But how can you be sure it is a meteorite?
NASA Meteor Watch suggests people use the hilariously named Meteorite or Meteowrong test designed by Dr Randy L. Korotev at the Washington University of St Louis — who also asks not to be sent samples before people are pretty certain they have a genuine meteorite on their hands.
In general, there are four tell-tale signs you have a meteorite. Due to the presence of metals (although in lower quantities in stony meteorites), they tend to have a higher density and attract magnets. They also tend to have an irregular shape and their surfaces, especially in stony meteorites, have a fusion crust. This is due to the objects burning up and melting while traveling through Earth's atmosphere.
It's not a meteorite if it has: light-colored crystals (quartz is commonly found on Earth but not anywhere else in the Solar System, bubbles (volcanic rocks on Earth have bubbles in but space rocks do not), or streaks (if you scratch it, it should not leave a streak. A black or red streak suggest the iron minerals magnetite or hematite, not found in meteorites).
More info on meteorite identification can be found in this guide from the University of New Mexico Meteorite Museum. Fun fact though, a meteorite falling from the sky will be cold to the touch. Getting seared by the air is not enough to warm up the whole object, which has spent eons in interplanetary (or maybe interstellar) space.
Interestingly, in the UK, it's a very different game.
In February 2021, a bolide streaked across the British sky and researchers and amateurs alike scrambled for possible meteorites that may have landed. Being the first meteorite found in the UK in 30 years, they were lucky to find several fragments that the Natural History Museum, London made sure it received to study and display.
The Winchcombe meteorite, as it is now called, turned out to be one of the rarest types of meteorites. It's a carbonaceous chondrites meteorite (CM), of which there are only 15 other known CM falls out of 65,000 meteorites on record. It's also one of only 40 meteorites whose location of origin in the asteroid belt is known. You can hear all about it here in our interview with the Museum's Dr Helena Bates.
So, who can you contact if you find a meteorite?
The UCLA Meteorite collection suggests people who think they have a meteorite contact the Geological Survey of their state or a local university, college, or natural history museum, which might be interested in providing proper identification. There are also private firms that do that sort of analysis, and some places will buy them, although if your rock is not rare, you may not get a good price for it.
It is actually of more scientific interest and value if you see the meteorite falling down. In that case, you should make a note of where the fireball comes from and where it continued to go. If you then find one, photograph the object before picking it up and making sure to look around to see if there are other fragments. At that point, you can contact the experts.