It’s been a month since a fireball was seen streaking across the sky in the remote border area between New Brunswick and Maine. And ever since, meteorite hunters have been combing the sparsely inhabited woods and fields in search of a potential extraterrestrial rock.
The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in Bethel, about a four-hour drive from the border, offered a US$25,000 reward to anyone who can bring them a kilogram-sized piece of the meteorite, should it exist.
While most meteorites that fall to Earth are small, it is possible for a kilo-sized piece to survive. In fact, the museum possesses the biggest Martian meteorite on Earth, the Taoudenni 002, weighing 14.5 kilograms.
Darryl Pitt, head of the museum’s meteorite division, is interested in this particular piece because of how close it fell to the museum itself and most importantly, the potential every specimen has for science.
“The scientific value is entirely contingent upon the type of meteorite it is,” he said. “All meteorites can be an aspect of the Rosetta stone to help us further understand the beginning of our solar system and beyond,” he explained, referring to the famous artifact that was the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.
Meteorites also have the potential to help scientists understand the creation of life on Earth, said Mr. Pitt. Theories suggest amino acids, the building blocks of life, first arrived piggybacking on meteorites that crashed into the planet millennia ago.
The museum, which is funding the reward, has the largest collection of moon rock meteorites in the world. The N.B.-Maine meteorite would be added to the Stifler Collection – made up of 6,000 meteorites from hundreds of individual falls.
Since the museum issued the challenge, professional meteorite hunters and amateurs alike have headed into the wilderness between the town of Waite, Me., and Canoose, N.B.. But so far, to no avail.
When professional hunter Roberto Vargas saw the Facebook post from the museum announcing the reward, he got in contact with meteorologist friends who looked at Doppler radar readings, a tool used by the U.S. National Weather Service, to check for a brief “hail” that could indicate the meteorite’s location.
Once he was assured the hunt looked promising, he headed to Maine from his home in Hartford, Conn. He searched for hours the first time before going back unsuccessfully a second time.
Professional meteorite hunters like Mr. Vargas don’t necessarily hold related degrees but rather learn what to look for when hunting from other meteorite collectors.
He said most meteorites are easy to spot without tools if you know what they look like. The exterior tends to be dark because they burned through the atmosphere while falling, while they’re lighter on the inside. Most meteorites are classified as chondrites, meaning they are stony and contain small mineral granules.
“Meteorites don’t fall out of the sky every day. So if a meteorite falls in your area and you can go out there and hunt it, by all means, get out there and do it,” he said.
Mr. Vargas did make one more attempt the following week, this time camping for a night in the forest. He advised amateurs to bring lots of water, be wary of the terrain and be alert for wild animals.
“We saw a couple of moose, we saw bear tracks, we heard coyotes at night,” he said.
Unfortunately for Mr. Vargas, his searches have been unfruitful. He said the adventure is still fun, but the times he’s successful are what keep him trying.
“We’re talking about our planet and the history of our solar system. I am struck with awe every time I think about it.”
If someone thinks they’ve found the meteorite, it will then undergo testing at the museum.
Mr. Pitt said the museum displays its meteorites to inspire future generations and to let people experience a piece of space on Earth.
“It has a very powerful effect not only on kids but the kid within all adults as well,” he said. “The first time I handled a piece of the moon I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ ”