Residents in rural Sask buzzing about meteor rocks and bidding war
at 19:02 on November 25, 2008, EDT.
By Chris Purdy, THE CANADIAN PRESS
SASKATOON - Residents in rural Saskatchewan near the Alberta boundary are buzzing with speculation 10 tonnes of meteorite rocks are scattered across their small patch of the Prairies.
And with a bidding war brewing between meteorite hunters in the United States, many expect the sparsely populated area could soon find itself in the middle of an astronomical circus.
"It could turn into quite a fiasco," Mike Casper of Ithaca, N.Y., said Tuesday.
The private collector, who is also curator of the meteorite collection at Cornell University, said he has seen hundreds of rock hunters pull into towns in Arizona and Texas where meteors were spotted in the past few years.
On Thursday, a large fireball brightly lit up the night sky and was reportedly spotted by tens of thousands of people across all three Prairie provinces. Witnesses reported it was as bright as the sun and some heard sonic booms.
The fireball was as big as a desk, say experts, and meteors that size occur over Canada only once every five years.
Alan Hildebrand, a University of Calgary researcher, has since pinpointed an area of farm fields near Manitou Lake, where possibly hundreds of chunks from the meteor may be found.
Robert Haag of Tucson, Ariz., the self-declared "Indiana Jones of meteorite hunters", earlier announced a $10,000 reward for the first one-kilogram chunk located.
"I will up that to $12,000 US," Casper said. "When they find it and the smoke clears, somebody's gonna phone me, cause they know they're looking for a bidding war."
He said he paid $225,000 for a rare meteorite in 1997. He owns hundreds of others.
"It's just the romance of owning something that did not originate on this planet," he said.
Les Johnson, who runs an oilfield service company in Drayton Valley, Alta., loaded his all-terrain vehicle into the back of his pickup truck and pulled into the town of Marsden, Sask., near Manitou Lake, about 250 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, on Tuesday.
He's one of a few out-of-towners searching for a prize from the sky.
"I'm a bit of rock hound," said Johnson. "I just always thought about finding a meteorite. This one came along and I thought, well, this doesn't happen very often so I might as well go out and look for it.
"I wouldn't be surprised if I run into a few people out there looking."
Local Denise Polkinghorne said everyone in the town of 250 residents can't stop talking about meteorites.
"My husband's going to put up a sign by some of his fields, 'U-Pick Meteors,' hoping that he'll get his rocky quarters of land cleaned up," she said with a laugh.
She said she hopes someone makes a discovery.
"I'm hoping they call this the Marsden Meteor, because you know it kind of makes our little town name go down in history."
Rancher John Graham said he hasn't had time yet to search his property for meteorites.
"Ten grand is 10 grand, but first my cows and everything else want to eat."
In the meantime, he wants strangers searching for rocks to keep off his property.
"I own the top six inches, so they better be careful. If I catch them on my place, they're probably going to need themselves a lawyer."
Hildebrand, who is also co-ordinator of the Canadian Fireball Reporting Centre under the Canadian Space Agency, said Quebec is the only province where fallen meteorites are finders keepers.
Property laws in all other provinces, including Saskatchewan, specify meteorites belong to the person who owns the land where they fall.
He said meteorite hunters should ask permission before searching private property.
Hildebrand himself is spending the next few days in the Manitou Lake area searching for meteorites.
He estimates hundreds of rocks larger than 50 grams could have landed, since the fireball itself was huge and entered the earth's atmosphere at a slower than average speed - about 14 kilometres per second.
He has pinpointed the likely fall area at about eight kilometres long and three kilometres wide.
"The hard part is finding the first one, and we don't know where that is yet," he said.
Heritage Canada also requires a permit to anyone shipping cultural property like meteorites out the country.
Hildebrand said the law basically ensures Canadian purchasers get the first right of refusal. If hundreds of meteorites are found from last week's event, and Canadian universities and museums each get their own piece, it shouldn't be a problem shipping others south of the border.
Casper said he has never bought a meteorite from Canada before.
"I don't think it's so easy," he said. "I will not touch a Canadian meteorite unless I have a release from the Canadian government."