California has many rich meteorite grounds. The most successful hunters use very thorough search techniques.
Meteorites have been found all over the Golden State, but many collectors go hunting in California’s flat, dry lakebeds. Rocks that land in these desert areas often remain visible and undisturbed indefinitely.
Successful meteorite hunters are methodical in their searches. They lay out grids at each site and then systematically examine every square foot for unusual stones. This is not easy because conditions can be very hot and dry. The hunters photograph meteorites exactly where they find them and record each location with a detailed description. The best teams can find several meteorites a day. The large numbered dots on the map (right) represent the California meteorites in Griffith Observatory’s collection. The small dots document other finds in the state.
The Bruceville Meteorite
In 1998, farmer Ben Howard was plowing on his property near Sacramento when he struck a huge rock. It turned out to be a visitor from space. This 183-pound (83-kg) meteorite is the largest-known stony meteorite found in California. After it was knocked off the surface of an asteroid, it wandered through space, and then fell to Earth thousands of year ago.
Meteorite From Mars
When meteorite hunter Robert Verish discovered two small stones in the Mojave Desert, he knew they were unusual. These rocks were once part of a lava river on Mars some 180 million years ago. A thin slice shows the structure of the stones.
How Meteorite Hunters Know Where to Look for Their Quarry
Although countless meteorites fall to Earth each year, finding them is tricky. They land everywhere, but if they plunge into the ocean or drop into forests and fields, they are probably lost forever. The best meteorite hunting grounds are places where these rocks stand out against the landscape: the deserts of Australia, Africa, and the Middle East; the frozen fields of Antarctica; and the dry lakebeds of California and the American southwest.
Meteorites can be hidden by Antarctic snow for years. Every year, expeditions hunt for them on the ice fields during summer in the southern hemisphere. The meteorites that fall in the world’s deserts and on dry lakebeds can lie undisturbed until hunters like Jason Utas (above) find them. Here, he signals his fourth find of the day at a lakebed site in eastern California.
Peter and Jason Utas found this meteorite near Barstow, California, embedded in dry lakebed mud as you see it here. They dug up the soil sample without removing the meteorite to show how it really looked.
How to Recognize a Meteorite
Not every strange-looking rock is a meteorite. The weight of a rock, the minerals it contains, the way its surface looks, and the place where it was discovered all help meteorite hunters determine whether a lucky find came from space.
Meteorites are not round or porous like these normal rocks.
Stony and iron meteorites can have melted, glassy surfaces. Some have pits and markings.
An iron meteorite will attract a magnet. Some stony meteorites are also slightly magnetic.
Compared with normal rocks iron meteorites are heavy for their size.