SAN ANTONIO – Back in mid-February, reports of a loud boom and fireball sightings came in near McAllen, Texas.
While some South Texas residents thought it was an explosion, NASA scientists confirmed that what was a 1,000-pound meteor broke into several fragments as it approached Earth. Most of it burned up, but some of those fragments ended up reaching the ground and were recovered by a team that set out to locate them.
Meteoroid, meteor, meteorite — what’s the difference?
Before we dive into the details, let’s talk about some basic terminology.
According to NASA, the three terms meteor, meteoroid, and meteorite are all related to the flashes of light in the sky that we know as “shooting stars.”
Depending on where it is, though, we refer to it as different names:
- Meteoroid: Objects in space that range in size from dust grains to small asteroids, kind of like “space rocks.”
- Meteor: Meteoroids that enter Earth’s atmosphere (or another planet) and burn up before reaching the ground.
- Meteorite: A meteoroid that survives the trip through the Earth’s atmosphere and hits the ground — this is the term we’re talking about in this case!
Finding the meteorites
After the loud boom and fireball reports came flooding in, researchers turned to a common tool that Your Weather Authority uses daily — Doppler radar.
They found radar returns at different altitude levels when these reports came in. This helped confirm that meteorite fragments fell to the Earth’s surface in South Texas.
“Doppler radar has opened up new venues and opportunities because it records solid objects at different densities that it sees as it passes through the atmosphere. You can locate it with the X, Y or Z coordinates of where it is and where it may land on the ground,” said Dr. Everett Gibson, a senior scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Gibson stopped by the exhibit opening on Thursday along with Philip Mani, one of the professional meteorite hunters that found some of the meteorites on display.
Researchers then pinpointed a possible area where these meteorites landed from the radar data, contacted the private property owner where they were believed to have fallen and started the search.
According to Mani, the first meteorite was found on a road, and the next two in “senderos.” Black rocks on top of grass initially made them relatively easier to spot, but that quickly changed due to the vegetation native to South Texas.
“All the pieces were either in heavy brush or had buried themselves. The one I found, if I had been five or ten feet, you know, left or right, I would have missed it completely,” said Mani.
It was still a successful search and one that you can see the findings of for yourself this summer in San Antonio!
See them in person at the Witte Museum!
Five of these meteorites are now on display at the “Welcome to Earth” exhibit at the Witte Museum. You can check them out through the summer months and even touch a 4.56 billion-year-old meteorite that was discovered in Morocco back in 2000!
Read more from the meteorologists on the Whatever the Weather page
Download KSAT's weather app for customized, accurate forecasts in San Antonio, South Texas or wherever you are
Find the latest forecasts, radar and alerts on the KSAT Weather Authority page