The Meteorite Hunters

Meteorite hunter and science writer Geoffrey Notkin, and close friend and expedition partner Steve Arnold, guest star with Adam Rogers — senior editor of Wired magazine — in the exciting new PBS show, Wired Science.

By Geoffrey Notkin, meteorite hunter and owner of Aerolite Meteorites
Photography by Qynne Arnold and the author

Wired Science is a one-hour prime time program that translates Wired magazine's award-winning journalism into a fast-paced television show. The Field Correspondent for our episode is Wired magazine's senior editor Adam Rogers. The program consists of seven segments, of which ours is the first.

Meteorites are rocks that have fallen to Earth from outer space. They start out as meteors — shooting stars that you see in the night sky. Any part of a meteor that survives its fiery journey through the atmosphere and lands on the surface of our planet is called a meteorite.

Meteorites are extremely rare — much more elusive than gold for example — and extremely old. Some are thought to pre-date even our own solar system, making them the most ancient things any person has ever touched. Meteorites are divided into three main classes: irons, stones, and the stony-irons which include pallasites, the rarest and most beautiful of meteorite types. Pallasites are made partially of extra-terrestrial iron and nickel, speckled with abundant sea-green olivine crystals (the semi-precious gemstone peridot), making them literally gems from space.

I have been actively involved in meteorite hunting for thirteen years, and expeditions have taken me to farthest corner of Siberia, across the hostile Atacama Desert in Chile, and tens of thousands of miles across the United States and Europe, scouring remote and sometimes dangerous places for these fascinating visitors from space.

My long-time friend and expedition partner, world-famous meteorite hunter Steve Arnold, and I were interviewed during the late summer of 2006 for a feature about meteorites in Wired magazine. Around the same time, Wired was working on a pilot for a new science series — Wired Science — for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). They contacted Steve and asked if for permission to film him at Brenham.

During the fall of 2005, Steve made the find of his lifetime. Buried almost eight feet beneath a wide, rolling field in Kiowa County, Kansas, Steve discovered an enormous pallasite. The three quarter-ton giant from outer space is the largest pallasite ever found in the United States, and one of the largest ever found in history. Within a few days, I joined Steve in Kansas and we recovered several more masses. Named after the nearest township, these beautiful and valuable meteorites are known as the Brenham pallasite.

Almost a year after the initial discovery, I was in Denver, Colorado at the annual Gem and Mineral show. Steve telephoned to say we'd been invited to appear on PBS. The production team wanted to feature both of us in the show, but we only had a few days' notice. I flew home to Tucson the next day, collected my meteorite hunting equipment, and headed back to Kansas for the fourth time in less than a year.

To learn more about our hunting techniques and the history of the Brenham meteorite, see Rock Star: Adventures of a Meteorite Men, by Geoffrey Notkin

With limited location shooting time available, Steve did some preliminary exploration alone and located a number of underground targets, using a giant hi-tech metal detector — the Meteorite Trolley — which he designed and built, and tows behind an ATV.

While on a meteorite hunting expedition, it is easy to spend days or even weeks without making a find. We were not even going to consider "planting" a meteorite for the show — everything we did would be completely authentic — but we did want to improve the odds of finding something for the Wired Science team. So, working on his own before the Wired team arrived, Steve marked a number of potential meteorites, but left them in the ground. I flew in to Wichita first, rented a car and met up with Steve and the film crew. It had been a long travel day for everyone.

The next morning, the crew had a 7 am call in order to get sunrise shots of Steve unloading and setting up the Meteorite Trolley. I joined up with them at lunchtime, where the director filmed a lengthy series of interviews with local farmers, upon whose land Steve had found meteorites. I amused the crew by showing them some meteorite specimens I'd brought along, and telling stories about the adventures and mishaps we'd shared on other expeditions.

Several times, during the afternoon we reminded the director that we were actually meteorite hunters, and we could show him something a lot more interesting than the insider of a diner. Steve and I were eager to get out into the field and do what we do best — find meteorites! For a couple more hours, the crew drove around town, getting local color shots of the pretty town of Greensburg, Kansas.

Our host and Field Correspondent, Adam Rogers, is an eloquent and enthusiastic person, and after the lunchtime interviews and background shots of town, he was definitely ready for some real adventure. With the afternoon wearing on, we finally got out into the field. A cavalcade of assorted vehicles headed out of town, onto dirt roads, and across the Kansas flatlands to the section of the Brenham meteorite strewnfield that Steve was exploring. To our unpleasant surprise the unobtrusive flags that Steve used to mark his possible targets had all been removed — probably accidentally by a tractor or plow. We had to start again from scratch. As a result, everything was as authentic as it could be, right down to when we heard the detector pick up a strong metallic signal for the first time.

We briefed Adam on how the Meteorite Trolley worked, and he helped us pinpoint the buried target. I asked Adam if he was ready. He smiled, and immediately replied, "I brought a shovel!"

We started digging.

The light was fading, so we dug a deep hole as quickly as we could. An unexpected dust storm sprang up and peppered us with dirt as we tried to find the buried object. The show's director seemed somewhat skeptical and asked, a number of times, if we were really sure there was "something down there."

Once a few feet of soil had been moved, Steve and I were almost certain we were on top of a meteorite. It was unlikely to be a man-made object at that depth. When we heard that metal-upon-metal sound of a shovel blade striking buried iron, we knew we had something. The wind swirled dust around our quickly-deepening hole, filling my ears and nose and making it more and more difficult to work. Time was running out. Watch the episode to see what happened next!

After our shoot in Kiowa County, the team headed for the Exploration Place in Wichita, where Steve's World Record Pallasite was on display. We spent most of the day sitting around waiting, while the crew set up some complex interior shots. Once the camera started rolling, Steve and I talked about the 1,420-pound pallasite, and the crew got some close-ups of our fifty-pound find.

In post production, the show was edited, so in the broadcast version it appears that we went to the Exploration Place first.

Geoff and Steve express their sincere thanks to Wired magazine, and especially Adam Rogers, who was a great pleasure to work with. We wish the Wired Science team every success with their new series.

See Geoff and Steve co-star with the glamorous Becky Worley in the Travel Channel's great series The Best Places to Find Cash and Treasures

See Geoff and Steve in their new show METEORITE MEN on Science Channel

During 2007 meteorite hunters Steve Arnold and Geoff Notkin will lead a few small teams of adventurers on actual expeditions to meteorite strewnfields. Expedition members will be guided to secret locations where Steve and Geoff have found meteorites in the past. Your team leaders will share their almost thirty years of combined experience with you. You will be instructed in metal detector operations, meteorite hunting techniques and strategies and entertained with campfire stories. It's an adventure you will always remember and you may well come home with a meteorite that you found!

Please visit our Meteorite Adventures website for more information.