Robin Goodwin was putting his daughter Arowyn to bed at his home on Kootenay Lake one evening in September when strangers pulled up in his driveway. They wanted to see a video he had posted online of a fireball streaking through the night sky. They were hunting for the space rocks. They said they were from the University of Calgary.
Mr. Goodwin was skeptical. Maybe the strangers were casing his place. Maybe they planned to use his video, which came from his security camera, to find chunks of meteorite to make money. It was not that he thought these meteorite hunters were necessarily nefarious. It was that he did not want them to use his information to get rich without sharing.
"I wanted a cut," he said in an interview.
Mr. Goodwin's caution was warranted. The meteorite market is an opaque collection of legitimate collectors, illegal exporters, and institutions such as museums and universities. Rocks can trade for anywhere between a couple of bucks and tens of thousands of dollars. Canada regulates the meteorite business – as much as a country can – because new discoveries can have both scientific and monetary value. The sooner someone tracks down chunks, the better.
The fireball blasted over British Columbia's interior at about 10:14 p.m. PDT on Sept. 4. The American Meteor Society has more than 300 reports on it – videos such a Mr. Goodwin's and witness accounts. People in B.C. had the best view, although Saskatchewan, Alberta, Washington, Idaho and Montana also caught a glimpse. Mr. Goodwin did not see it live. He heard the fireball announce its presence.
He was in his basement that night when something spooked him. "It sounded like if you had a bowling ball" – a five-pin, not a 10-pin, he said – "sitting on your table, and then it rolled off the table, and started rolling across the floor."
"It was rolling for a good while," Mr. Goodwin said. "I thought: 'Huh. That's really mysterious because whatever fell off the table shouldn't still be rolling now.'"
He went upstairs and could still hear it, albeit more faintly. Outside he checked to see if the wind was to blame. Nothing.
Mr. Goodwin checked Facebook and found chatter about a meteor. And so he looked at the video in his security camera. There it was.
No one has admitted finding meteorites from this fireball. Finding but not telling would be unethical, according to Geoff Notkin, the award-winning, TV-show-making, book-writing rock hunter who runs a large business buying and selling meteorites called Aerolite Meteorites Inc. His collection includes finds from the late meteorite pioneer Harvey Nininger, a star in the space-rock world.
"There are instances of meteorites being smuggled out of countries," Mr. Notkin said. "That's just wrong."
Private collectors can cash in on meteorites, but some rocks' value is scientific.
"The right thing to do is to make some or all of [a new find] available for study. And if we don't do that, the potential scientific knowledge that this meteorite might contain is lost forever," Mr. Notkin said. "I am fine with selling meteorites for financial gains as long as part of that revenue is used for scientific and educational benefit."
Meteorites tell us about places we've never been, from micro-worlds to Mars. A meteorite's composition, for example, could help scientists determine whether the rock came from a place suitable for life. And not just aliens or microbes. Space rocks could tell us what it would take for humans to colonize a place far, far away. Or they might contain information that could help us deflect asteroids that could wipe out Earth's constituents.
Finding meteorites quickly is important because, the longer they are exposed to our world, the more history from their world is lost. The fiery journey is traumatic enough. The introduction to dirt, water, oxygen, pine needles, the grease from our hands, and everything else on this planet contaminates foreign rocks.
Chris Herd, a professor in the University of Alberta's Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department, and curator of the school's meteorite collection, in 2011 had to fend off poachers at an important discovery south of Whitecourt, Alta.
The province protected the area as a historic resource. Government designations, however, do not repel meteorite bandits. Dr. Herd and his crew asked Mr. Notkin to help them quickly recover the specimens. They gathered about 485 meteorites in a few days, while filming an episode of Mr. Notkin's show Meteorite Men.
Anyone who snatched meteorites from the Whitecourt site without permission could face a fine of up to $10,000 and/or jail, Dr. Herd said. Ownership rights vary across the country, but exporting is a federal matter. Exporters apply for a permit. Then expert examiners consider whether the meteorite has scientific value, said Dr. Herd, himself an expert examiner. If it does, academics have six months to find the cash to buy it at market value. If the meteorite is not special, the exporter can send it off.
Meteorites like the ones that experts believe landed near Kootenay Lake's eastern shore may be scientifically important, but their value cannot be determined until they are found. However, because people saw and heard the fireball, the rocks are desirable because they are linked to a specific moment in history.
Mr. Goodwin is on the side of the scientists. He Googled the strangers who showed up at his home that night, and they were indeed from the University of Calgary. Alan Hildebrand, a planetary scientist and professor in the U of C's geoscience department, returned the day after his unannounced visit. His team estimates the Kootenay Lake fireball was two to five tonnes. The largest surviving chunks, Dr. Hildebrand reckons, should be the size of a person's head. The smallest may compare to a grain of sand.
Dr. Hildebrand's team is now calculating the trajectory of the fireball using information gleaned from sources like Mr. Goodwin's security video. A few seconds of that clip catch something unique: Double shadows. The scientists hypothesize that this means the main fireball split into two or more pieces, and therefore two chunks of material from another world briefly blazed through ours. Dr. Hildebrand measured angles in Mr. Goodwin's yard to recreate the space rocks' path based on the video's shadows. The math should be done soon.
"That's when you get into the business of walking around and looking at the ground," Dr. Hildebrand said. He will not be alone. Mr. Goodwin's accidental contribution to science has him curious.
"I'd love to find a piece of meteor," Mr. Goodwin said.