Texas & New Mexico eyewitnesses help solve fireball mystery; scientists still seeking meteorite fragments one year later
Albuquerque, N.M. -- After a year of detective work involving scores of eyewitness reports from across New Mexico and Texas, a group of scientists has concluded that the Earth collided with a swarm of cosmic debris on the night of Oct. 3-4, 1996.
The most widely-reported fireballs were ones over eastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle, and another near Bakersfield, California, exactly 104 minutes later. The relationship among the times, locations, and trajectories of the meteors seemed too unlikely to be mere coincidence, and had initially led some scientists to believe that a single object skimmed through the atmosphere and re-entered after a single orbit.
After careful analysis of a videotape taken from El Paso, Texas, together with eyewitness reports, Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratories and Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario found that the first meteor entered at too steep of an angle to skip off the atmosphere. They are now convinced that the two fireballs observed over New Mexico/Texas and over California were two different objects.
They also determined the most likely location in the Texas panhandle where meteorites might have fallen, and John Wasson (UCLA) has re-issued a reward for a sample. Brown and Boslough believe that any meteorites reaching the ground in the Southwest would most likely be found south of Amarillo, near the towns of Hereford and Canyon, where they were carried by winds to the east of the visible trajectory. The most likely place for small meteorites to have landed would be in an oblong area about 10 miles east-southeast of Hereford, but any larger meteorites would be in a strip that stretches as far as 10 miles east of Canyon.
This part of the Texas panhandle is well known for its abundance of meteorite finds because it is flat, with little vegetation and few natural rocks on the surface. The best-known meteorite area is southwest of Plainview, where more than 900 were recovered after they fell in 1903. They were still being found as late as 1949.
Over the past year, two groups of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have also reported low-frequency sound data showing that the Earth's atmosphere was hit by at least 60 objects within several hours of the two that were originally reported, two of which were also observed by Defense Department satellites.
Most of the infrasound-producing meteors occurred during daylight hours and were not seen by witnesses, but the large number of collisions taking place that night helps explain why two bright ones with such similar trajectories would be seen so closely spaced in time. Although the scientists eliminated their hypothesis of a single object bouncing off the atmosphere and re-entering it later, they are still very interested in the events of one year ago because it means the Earth collided with a cluster of objects, perhaps pieces of a broken asteroid.
A sample of one of these meteorites would help scientists determine what kind of asteroid spawned the fragments and better understand how they break apart and explode in the atmosphere, says Sandia's Mark Boslough.
Prof. John Wasson is seeking such samples and is offering a reward of $2,000 for the first confirmed sample as large as 4 ounces, and he urges persons living within the calculated fall area to look in their yards and fields, on their roofs and (if safely accessible) in their gutters for small stones, probably black with a fresh matte texture. Samples should be sent to Prof. Wasson at the Institute of Geophysics, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90095, or to Dr. Adrian Brearley, Institute of Meteoritics, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131. Each sample will be acknowledged, but those that are not meteorites will not be returned unless a return self-addressed envelope is provided.
Neal Singer, firstname.lastname@example.org, (505) 845-7078
Mark Boslough, email@example.com, (505) 845-8851