The Hamburg Meteor14 min read
After a day of hunting for meteorites on the frozen lakes of Hamburg, Michigan, Todd Slisher and team point to their finds. From left are Sandra Macika, Todd Slisher, Tony Licata, and Brian Wolff. Not pictured but also part of the team that day was Buddy Stark. Photo by Lisa DeLuca Studios from Sky & Telescope article.
That Fateful Day
Today marks the two-year anniversary of the fall of the Hamburg meteorite. The following is an attempt to chronicle the events that have transpired since that eventful day.
I have fond memories of watching the Perseid meteor shower every summer at my family’s lake home in Hamburg, Michigan. The Perseids sparked a lifelong interest in space and astronomy for me. I remember looking up and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be amazing for a meteorite to hit nearby?”
Little did I know that forty years later my wish would come true on January 16th, 2018! I was at my cabin, 200 miles away from our Hamburg home, imaging comet PanSTARRS, C/2016 R2. I stepped outside the observatory shortly after 8:00 pm to check the temperature and noticed a bright but silent flash in the south.
I never thought twice about the flash until about eleven that evening, when I began reading reports of the fireball online. If I had not stepped outside the dome at the very moment of the flash I probably wouldn’t have noticed it. The reports were saying there might be meteorites on the ground and people were trying to pinpoint where they might be. I became so distracted that I never finished my comet image.
Triangulating a Meteor
In the morning, Todd Slisher, Director of Longway Planetarium, determined that the meteor passed over his house in South Lyon and landed about twenty miles to the west. Seismic data suggested the ground shakes were to the east in Mt Clemens. Todd based his calculation on his security camera footage which captured the shadow of his roof peak transiting his porch during the meteor flash. It also recorded a boom shortly after, which gave him an altitude of the flash based on the delay and speed of sound. Todd began emailing friends to organize a ground search. Later that afternoon, we received an e-mail from Jenny Pon containing a Doppler map by Marc Fries, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division. The Doppler map showed an area where meteorites might have fallen, and it had supported Todd’s prediction. To accommodate our schedules, we agreed to meet in Hamburg the following day at noon, January 18th.
There were no reports of meteorites yet, but later we learned that finds were already happening. One team, led by professional meteorite hunter Larry Atkins, had already obtained permission to hunt on Bass and Strawberry Lakes. Their team found the first rocks that went into the The Meteoritical Society Bulletin, which included the main mass found by his teammate Robert Ward.
Our intrepid team of five, led by Todd, started out on land to no avail. We eventually set out on Strawberry Lake ice in mid-afternoon. We spread out and walked straight lines across the entire lake, parallel to the AMS trajectory. Todd found the first specimen almost immediately. I found one shortly after. Our third and last rock for that day came as we neared the other side of the lake at dusk. At 27g, it was the largest specimen of the day and was found by our teammate Brian Wolff.
The rocks got larger farther down the strewn field as we walked roughly east to west along the length of the lake. It was an amazing day of learning and discovery for me. As it was getting too dark to see, we drove to my family’s cottage on nearby Ore Lake to celebrate our finds and take pictures. Ore Lake is part of the same chain of lakes as Bass and Strawberry Lakes in Hamburg Township. This space rock could not have chosen a better place to target; not only was it my hometown, but we had before us a sea of flat white surface on which to spot the conspicuous blackened rocks… serendipitous to say the least! Meteorite hunting couldn’t be easier.
Further, we were in the middle of a winter cold snap and the ice was thick, sporting an inch or so of snow. As the wind blew the snow around, it would expose the black dots amidst a sea of white. Everything just seemed to be coming together so perfectly. We couldn’t wait to get back out there in the morning.
“…not only was it my hometown, but we had before us a sea of flat white surface on which to spot the conspicuous blackened rocks… serendipitous to say the least! “
The Search Continues
The next morning we met up with some local astronomy club members, who had heard the news and wanted to join the search. I had my meteorite wrapped in foil to protect it from organics as Todd had instructed. As I opened it, they gathered around to get a peek at the meteorite like a flock of chickens around the farmer at feeding time. They weren’t the only ones who had heard the news about Hamburg meteorites though. Our sleepy town of Hamburg, Michigan was now the destination of hordes of would-be treasure hunters and prospectors spurred by inflated media reports of a million dollar meteorite. The numbers only grew as the day progressed. News teams were on hand, as well. One reporter even found a meteorite while running the scoop.
We were not professional meteorite hunters and had no idea this would create such a buzz. In retrospect, our start time of 10:00 AM was way too late. By then, most of the twenty-six meteorites that would be confirmed for this fall had already been recovered. How were we to know? Nobody knew really. Everyone believed there were still rocks out there on the now heavily trampled lakes. Many hunters were locals who lived around the lakes. Many more were not.
There was a roadside access point on Bass Lake where the reporters were covering the action and where most people were gaining entrance to the frozen lake. We decided to start here. Bass Lake was downfield from Strawberry Lake, and it is where some of the larger rocks were found the day before by the Atkins team. By that afternoon the ice began making horrific cracking noises as it began to warm and expand. As a lake dweller I assured the others this was normal, and that it was still too thick to fall through. They were less convinced than I however and decided to get off the ice. Alas, after a hard day of searching both Bass and Strawberry Lakes, we returned empty-handed. We didn’t even witness any more finds. Some rocks were recovered by others as noted in the table below, but they were big lakes and the finds were few and far between.
Saturday, January 20th:
My family was home, and my hunting partners all declined, so we made it a family affair. I created a map tracing a proposed ground trajectory from the finds noted at Bass and Strawberry lakes eastward through the town of Hamburg and onto Hamburg Lake. Going on a hunch that smaller rocks might be there, we decided to give Hamburg Lake a try. An elderly couple graciously granted us access to the private lake. I told my kids to start by walking the line I had proposed and to look for “little holes in the snow.” I also told them to take a picture of the hole in situ, before digging and to note the GPS coordinates. By then, I had learned the value of this sort of documentation: this helps predict where other rocks might be, as well as contributing to science and expanding the known strewn field. As we got out on the ice, we met a guy named Brian Barnibo, with a tiny pebble in his hand, about the size we would expect a meteorite to be this far eastward, on the light end of the strewn field. I asked him where he found it but he did not wish to tell me. I could easily see his pebble had all the characteristics of a Hamburg meteorite. When I showed him the rock I found, and told him where, he revealed that he found it there on Hamburg Lake. So, we spread out and kept walking the line. Moments later, my son Andrew found a stone that turned out to be just a common rock after lab analysis – it was even slightly magnetic!
Oddly, as newbie meteorite hunters, we’d known nothing but success. In this pristine strewn field, we had found no “meteoraints”, (That’s Hamburgish for “meteorwrong”), until now. Perhaps it popped out from a quad or snowmobile tread. Not long after that however, my two daughters beckoned for me to come to them. Sure enough they had found one, right on my proposed line! It was purely coincidence of course, but at this point Dad was looking pretty good in their eyes, so I didn’t want to burst their bubble. Wind and other dynamics would have scattered rocks well off any theoretical line in a roughly elliptical pattern, I had learned. These are the only two reports of meteorites found on Hamburg Lake, to my knowledge. Unfortunately, we lost track of Barnibo before fully documenting his find. But, we’d meet again under different circumstances.
Sunday, January 21st:
The next day things were starting to warm up, and the snow on the ice was getting slushy. Since there weren’t any more reports of rocks on the main lakes, my friend and astronomy professor Jesse Mason and I decided to test the extent of the strewn field by hunting up at Ore Lake. Figuring the fragments would be small this far north, we started at my family cottage and went around the lake waiving our magnet sticks at every black speck we saw. I donned a pair of ice skates to cover more area. The ice could no longer be trusted with the warming trend, so we stayed close to shore. It is amazing how many metal flecks we picked up from rusty docks and other clutter. Nevertheless, we found several stones out on the slushy ice. Only one of them stuck to my magnet! All of them were tiny specks that we had to take back to the lab for closer inspection.
Samer Hariri, a Geologist and my good friend, was our local AMS Field Agent for the Hamburg fall. After looking at our finds he was able to rule out all but one. It was the one that stuck to my magnet (pictured below). Much later, Jim Goodall produced a StrewnLAB map showing possible fragmentation that may have drifted northward to Ore Lake. This takes into account all the wind current data from the time frame of the fall, so it is still not out of the question in my mind that the Ore Lake speck could be a meteorite.
What do you think? Bear in mind the rock is only 17mg so the picture is highly magnified. Olivine crystals appear to be huge but are no bigger than what are found in larger confirmed specimens…not that I am biased or anything. (Did I mention I grew up on Ore Lake?) ?
Monday, January 22nd, 2018:
Five days after the Hamburg fall, the lake ice had become too unsafe to traverse. So began the more arduous task of searching on land where we would learn the true frequency of “meteoraints”. I did a lot of searching on my own, but as far as I know, no meteorites were found by anyone that entire week.
Saturday, January 27th, 2018:
By the weekend help arrived. Todd Slisher organized a second formal search where we would visually grid some of the fields in the area. We spent an entire Saturday scanning the ground for meteorites. By then, the snow had melted and it wouldn’t have been too difficult to spot fresh meteorites in the dormant matted grass but none were found.
We decided to call it a day and headed back to our cars, cutting through the woods. On the way to my car I spotted what looked like a common grey rock. Being so close to a dirt road, limestone road gravel wasn’t uncommon in these woods. I waived my magnet over it anyway. “CLICK”. It stuck! Could it be? Turning the rock over my heart started racing: It was covered in fusion crust! …A beautiful broken specimen! The broken side revealed the grey interior matrix of the H4 Chondrite with rusty flecks of iron. “Todd”, I yelled, “I think I found one.” “No way” he replied. “Way!” I said, or something like that.
Todd, like Samer, was in collaboration with Mike Hankey to act as an AMS field agent for the Hamburg fall. He came over and immediately confirmed it. We had our first find on land, a broken but conically oriented “Hamburger.” At this point I was running around fist pumping like Tiger Woods at the Masters. Todd just shook his head and rolled his eyes. I said “Todd, you need to organize more of these searches because every time you do I find one.” (It was only his second search. ?)
By then Todd had donated the specimen he found to NASA for study. Brian Wolff’s 27g specimen was on display at a museum. Other groups like the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) were bugging Todd for more material to study. So he put me in contact with them, now that I had two rocks of my own. This new specimen went to PSI for study. One of their scientists who lived in the Michigan, Jordan Steckloff, asked me to document finds for a collaborative paper they were working on. In this regard, I regretted I did not get more information from Brian Barnibo about his find on Hamburg Lake, when I had the chance.
A Freak Twist of Fate
A year and a half later, in a freak twist of fate, I was having some flooring installed in my home. A man walked in from the crew, greeting me as if he knew me. His piercing blue eyes and black hair looked familiar but I could not place him. Staring right through me he said, “I’m Brian Barnibo.” I nearly flipped. I pulled him off the job, saying “We have some unfinished business to attend to!” His crew seemed to understand. He had even brought his meteorite with him! By this time, it had broken in half and was glued back together. Nevertheless it was nice to finally verify this find as authentic. I still marvel at how things came together on this project. It’s just weird.
Getting back to our time frame of the winter of 2018, the lakes and ponds in the area which never thawed completely began to refreeze. During the thaw, we noticed some curious holes in the ice and we were careful to mark their coordinates. Now that we could walk on the ice again, those holes were still visible under a newly fallen layer of snow. We decided to reopen them and drop a magnet down. It was wishful thinking but we had to try. Nothing turned up. We even sent a diver down to double check come spring thaw. I guess those holes can form as warming debris sinks through the ice or from warmer currents.
Eventually Jesse, Samer and I, and even Todd, all had the same idea independent of one another. We decided to build larger magnetic sweepers and take our searches to some of the other fields in the area. After a brief period of friendly “one-upmanship,” Samer had the brilliant idea to make a magnetic roller! I shamelessly stole his idea because he had no time to build it. Time was of the essence, after all. Feeling somewhat guilty, I gave him first honors to use it. The build turned out really nice. I had an old Tasco telescope gathering dust in my garage. So I decided to re-purpose the steel tube to make this old Tasco do more “science” than it ever did before! With the addition of over two hundred neodymium magnets, some wheels and a modified lawnmower handle, our “Super Space Rock Scooper” was ready!
“If someone were to throw a meteorite in my one acre yard, I would be hard pressed to find it in the grass; imagine one rock in fifty-two acres…”
With permission from the township and other land owners, we took to the fields with our makeshift sweepers. Expectations were high that we would find meteorites. We quickly learned, however, that the distribution of actual meteorites on the ground, even in a fresh strewn field, is very sparse. We roughly calculated one fragment in every fifty-two acres for this fall. If someone were to throw a meteorite in my one acre yard, I would be hard pressed to find it in the grass; imagine one rock in fifty-two acres with no more than a hundred acres of searchable fields to work with! Indeed, there may be none there at all. We swept and rolled, gridding acre after acre in Hamburg Township. In the weeks and months to come we brought many samples of “schmutz”, (mostly hematite), that stuck to our magnets back to the lab for study.
In addition to the ground search we also took to the air with drones. Kyle Souls a friend of ours and expert drone pilot flew drones equipped with infrared cameras over flat roof tops in hopes of detecting the sun warmed meteorites. Kyle’s thought was that the darker meteorites would emit a warmer heat signature than the surrounding areas. We tested his theory using the actual meteorites and found it to be true. The meteorites glowed warmer in infrared. So on days when the sun was out we scanned the rooftops of schools and other buildings in and around Hamburg.
In the final analysis however, no more large pieces were recovered despite the effort. We did log numerous crumbs of material we cannot guarantee to be meteoritic nor rule out.
To my knowledge, no more large pieces have been recovered since that last one I found in the woods on January 27th, 2018. That hasn’t stopped us from trying. Jim Goodall, with the General Motors Astronomy Club, has organized several search parties since. His continued development and use of his StrewnLAB software, has helped us better understand the strewn field and potential new areas to search. There is still a lot of ground to cover. I, along with several other local enthusiasts, continue to metal detect and sweep the wooded areas and fields of Hamburg Township for these precious messengers from our early solar system.
Click for the technical report and strewn field maps:
The following table shows only the documented finds for the Hamburg fall. No doubt there are more. Many people chose to remain anonymous and did not report to AMS. including the main mass. I’d love to know more about it and other finds from the Hamburg fall. If you or anyone you know has a “Hamburger,” please contact us here at Strewnify to share your find!
6 thoughts on “The Hamburg Meteor”
Happy meteoversary !
Same to you my friend!
Brilliant article! Carry On!
Thanks Samer and Martin!
Awesome article. Informative, educational and fun. I am an aspiring meteorite hunter and had a great time living vicariously through your experience!
Great to hear Rick! Thanks!
Best wishes on your meteorite hunting.