The hunt was on Wednesday for any pieces of space rock that may have fallen to Earth from a meteor that illuminated the New England sky with a brilliant flash.
But skywatchers warn that the search could be extremely difficult. It’s possible that no pieces survived to reach the ground as meteorites. And any that did will be very hard to find, given that they appear to have come down near Maine’s remote, wooded Rangeley Lakes region.
Researchers believe the object broke into pieces high in the sky, causing distinct explosions that can be seen as separate streaks in the sky in some videos of the display, which happened around 12:50 a.m. Tuesday. More than 700 people have reported seeing it.
That means it’s likely that most of the material disintegrated as it traveled through the air.
“What surprised us was the way it fragmented. It appears to be very fragile,” said Bill Cooke, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “This one, if I had to guess, I would probably say the odds of a meteorite are small.”
Anything can happen, though, and many around Maine are feeling optimistic.
By Wednesday morning, the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum had received about 50 inquiries from people hoping to claim the $20,000 reward the institution has offered for the first 2-pound fragment.
NASA believes the meteor was about 5 feet in diameter and weighed 6 tons.
“There are people who are very curious if they have a meteorite,” said Barbra Barrett, director of the museum, which is under construction in Bethel, Maine. She said the group’s job now is to separate “meteor-right” from “meteor-wrong,” but encouraged people to continue to call in.
“We’re happy to take a look at it and do what we can to start pinpointing where this thing fell,” Barrett said. She advised those searching to look for rocks that seem different from those around them, or appear to have suddenly arrived in the area.
Observers believe the object broke apart about 20 miles west of Rangeley, Maine, but it’s hard to get more specific than that, according to Mike Hankey, operations manager for the American Meteor Society.
He said none of the Doppler radar beams scanning the sky caught images of falling debris. Some seismic sensors caught the boom that the explosions produced in certain areas, which might help in the search, he added.
Meteorites usually fall in an area that’s about 2 by 10 miles, he said, and if they landed in the part of northern Maine where the fireball took place, they will likely be difficult to find. Wooded areas are among the most difficult places to search, he said.
That, coupled with the relatively slim chance that the objects even reached the ground, means the odds of a find are low — though not impossible.
“Unless something comes up with the seismic thing, or unless a Maine local gets lucky and finds it, it’s really kind of over,” he said.
That hasn’t stopped people from taking an interest. The nonprofit meteor society had received 724 witness reports of the meteor by Wednesday afternoon.
He said anybody who wants to look should consider taking the trails in the area of the Rangeley Lakes.
Even with the long odds, Cooke said he doesn’t blame those enticed by the possibility that they could find an extraterrestrial object — and maybe even some cash.
“That would be a big motivation for even me to get out and look for it,” he said. “I mean, what have you got to lose?”Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.