Spaceflight Insider

Chelyabinsk, “Meteor-wrongs,” adventures, and more with Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin

Geoff Notkin is a world-renowned meteorite expert. For three years, he hosted the critically acclaimed Discovery Channel show “The Meteorite Men.” He has hunted space rocks in places all over the world, including Chile, Sweden, Poland, and Australia. He recently began hosting a new TV show called STEM journals, which just started its second season. He was recently interviewed at The Explorers Club by adventure journalist Jim Clash as part of the Exploring Legends series. The following are some highlights from his interview, which began with a discussion about the Chelyabinsk meteorite that fell in Russia in February.

A recently recovered piece of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. Notice the black rind abd fusion crust – formed when the fragment was instantaneously heated to 3000°F when it hit our atmosphere. Photo: Navid Baraty

A recently recovered piece of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. Notice the black rind and fusion crust – formed when the fragment was instantaneously heated to 3000°F when it hit our atmosphere. Photo Credit: Navid Baraty

The Chelyabinsk event was the largest meteorite event to occur on our planet in about a 60-year period. We see several fireballs (big meteors) every year, and if the fireball makes it to the Earth’s surface, it becomes a meteorite. Most meteors are small grains of rock, sand, or pieces of ice that burn up in the atmosphere and never make it to the surface. Maybe a few times a year, a large fireball is witnessed by people and some small chunks make it to the ground. It is maybe only once every 50 to 100 years (if that) that we get something of Chelyabinsk magnitude. It was a massive event, and although not the biggest, it was the best documented fall in human history, partly due to the prevalence of dash cams in Russia.

Events like this are very rare within the human span of time. Only one big meteor event might occur in a lifetime. It’s very hard to ascertain the initial size because we don’t yet know how much of a meteor ablates during flight. Some say 5 percent, some say 90 percent, we just don’t know. The size of the explosion was estimated in the press to be the force of 30 atom bombs. 1200-1500 people were injured during the event, caused mostly from glass shattering when the shockwave hit Chelyabinsk. Until now, there had never been multiple injuries caused by a single meteor event.

“By large meteorite standards, this was nothing. This is like throwing a peanut out the window. I’ve been to the Popigai crater on the Taymyr peninsula in Northern Siberia. That crater is 100 km across. So you can fit the country of Luxembourg into it four times, with room to spare.”

Something that size could potentially cause a mass-extinction event. There are millions of asteroids up there, much bigger than what came in over Siberia. Many of them are what we call the main belt asteroids, which lazily rotate the sun between Mars and Jupiter and mostly mind their own business. But sometimes they crash into each other.

Notkin has an asteroid named after him. Asteroid 132904 was discovered at Mt. Palomar by astrophysicist and meteorite specialist Robert Matson. He named it “Notkin” in honor of Geoff’s work in science education. Geoff Notkin decided to share the honor with his father, Sam, who had sparked his interest in astronomy as a child.

Notkin holds up a piece of Campo do Cielo, one of the oldest meteorites known on the Earth. Photo: Navid Baraty

Notkin holds up a piece of Campo del Cielo, a meteorite that is estimated to be 4,200 – 4,700 years old. Photo Credit: Navid Baraty

Most meteorite hunters search for iron rich meteorites, so the normal operational plan is to use metal detectors. However, stony meteorites, including those of Lunar and Martian origin contain little to no metal. There are only two ways of finding them. In rare cases such as Chelyabinsk, the impact is observed and fragments are located almost immediately after.  But usually, the best bet is to search in places such as Antarctica, that don’t have many terrestrial rocks to begin with. By examining unusual rocks, you will eventually find meteorites.

Sometimes, stony meteorites are found to have an identical structure to lunar samples returned during the Apollo Program. These lunar meteorites are pieces of rock that were ejected from the Moon during impact events and eventually made their way to Earth. Because it is illegal to own Apollo lunar samples, lunar meteorites are currently the only Moon rocks a person can own. Only about 100 of them have been found so far, so they are very valuable. Martian meteorites are extremely rare and hold significant scientific value. We have yet to fly a Mars sample return mission and air pockets in the porous structure of these meteorites contain samples of the Martian atmosphere.

Geoff Notkin and Jim Clash discuss the characteristics of a meteorite during “Exploring Legends” interview. Photo Credit: Stacey Severn

Notkin and Clash then reminisced about the time they went meteorite hunting together in Texas (“Meteorite Men” Season 1, episode 2). Odessa is the site of America’s second largest crater, which is rich with Iron fragments. Armed with high tech gear including ground penetrating radar, an unexploded bomb detector from Scandinavia, and specialized bobcat excavators, the team expected to have no trouble finding meteorites. For days, they found nothing but tin cans and other falsely identified items which they jokingly call “meteor-wrongs.”  Then. on the fourth day, while driving down a dirt road, Jeff’s co-host Steve spotted something embedded in the road in front of their vehicle. They stopped to investigate and found that the gravel road was littered with meteorites. The team gathered 78 lbs of meteorites from the road and donated the entire haul to the Odessa crater museum. Jim Clash found his first meteorites and Geoff Notkin worried that none of the viewers would believe this actually happened.

Notkin concluded the interview by talking about his latest educational program “STEM Journals,” aimed to get kids excited about various scientific and technological fields. “I’m not talking about it, I’m doing it. That’s the new way of science education. I drove a solar powered racecar, I got to launch a helium blimp from inside Meteor Crater, and I met an algae that’s producing biodiesel that could be a fantastic clean energy solution.”

Clash asked why the show’s title uses the STEM acronym rather than STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics). Notkin adamantly defended his belief that the arts are a critical part of a well-rounded education that all kids should have access to. His advice to educators is “Don’t focus on too narrow of a curriculum. Let young people find what they’re destined to be. And the only way you can do that is by exposing them to a bit of everything.” You can check out STEM journals for yourself here: Stem Journals

A final quote from Geoff:  “I get Into a bit of a trance state. And I find meteorite hunting to be really contemplative. I mean, we’re looking for visitors from outer space that have been buried, in some cases, on our planet, for tens of thousands of years. It’s kind of a cosmic experience to find one.”


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