An asteroid that streaked across the skies over Canada's Prairies last fall dropped a record number of fragments, including a bowling-ball sized chunk worth $400,000 that a selfless farmer has donated - for free - to the University of Calgary.
"These meteorites are like lumps of gold with the same kind of value," said Alan Hildebrand, a planetary scientist with the University of Calgary. "Many people have come here to collect meteorites to sell them."
The valuable bowling-ball sized piece, weighing 13 kilograms, was donated to the university by farmer Alex Mitchell. An oil-field worker found it on Mr. Mitchell's property and turned it over to him.
"I was surprised by the weight for the mass," Mr. Mitchell said. "It's heavy for the size."
Under Canadian law, meteorites may be bought and sold, but a federal permit is required to export them. Any found pieces are rightfully the property of the person owning the land where they fell.
More than 1,000 pieces of the meteor, which fell from the sky Nov. 20 near the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary south of Lloydminster, have been recovered so far.
Scientists said yesterday that thousands more remain to be found now that snow has melted and the search has resumed.
Mr. Hildebrand said searchers are finding dozens of meteorites a day.
"Because they have the metal in them, they're strongly attracted to a magnet." he said. "So we walk around with magnets and sticks so we can check things quickly."
Volunteer searchers were walking shoulder to shoulder through fields and gullies yesterday.
Graduate student Ellen Milley has found nearly 70 pieces herself, more than anybody.
"I was involved with the very first find," she said. "I spent about two weeks in the fall searching in the very cold weather and I've been back here for three weeks."
The space rocks are being stored in nitrogen at the university to prevent them from deteriorating in the air, Ms. Milley said.
Mr. Hildebrand, a co-ordinator with the Canadian Fireball Reporting Centre with the Canadian Space Agency, estimated the rocks are 4.5 billion years old and date back to the origin of the solar system.
"They tell us about a time we have no other sample of," he said.
While a 13-kilogram chunk may seem large, scientists say the three largest chunks of the meteor have yet to be found. The searchers have a pretty good idea where they landed, based on eyewitness videos that show their trajectory.
"We had all these explosions and the very bright fireball, but right at the end we can literally see three objects continuing through the sky," Mr. Hildebrand said.
"We know what height they started at ... so we can calculate their approximate mass, which is 45 kilograms to 200 kilograms. We've alerted the local landowners and have permission to search some of their land."
These larger rocks will be found buried in the ground, he said. "They're big enough that they would hit the surface and get down in the ground. So we're telling people that they've got to be looking for holes."