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How to spot a space rock: University of Alberta video helps differentiate earth rocks from meteorites

Global News logo Global News 2019-09-04 Margeaux Maron
Video captures a bright streaking light near Edmonton, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Video captures a bright streaking light near Edmonton, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.

It was an amazing sight to behold.

Late Saturday evening, the eastern skies over Alberta were illuminated as a large fireball streaked from north to south.

Social media erupted with videos of the space phenomenon with many left wondering if the flash had deposited any space rocks on earth.

READ MORE: Videos capture bright object streaking across Alberta skyline

Chris Herd, with the University of Alberta Faculty of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, says it was definitely a fireball, meaning a meteorite from space entered earth's atmosphere as a meteor, which was seen as the unusually bright light.

"Some people reported seeing something at the end of the fireball, sort of like a burst, maybe some glowing rocks coming from that," said Herd. "So that's a pretty good indication that something survived to make it to the ground."

"If anything did survive, those are called meteorites," Herd added.

Based on analysis with help from the American Meteor Society, Herd says the meteor likely broke up near New Sarepta, Alta.

"The end of the fireball was right over New Sarepta, but what people don't necessarily realize is that the end of the fireball is 15-20 km in altitude and the rocks keep going in what we call dark flight," said Herd.

This makes it tough to pinpoint an exact location of potential space rock deposits "because they're no longer lighting up on the outside and they fall to the ground from there," said Herd.

READ MORE: Space rocks from 1960 Bruderheim Meteorite help usher in new age of geology

Other meteorite events in Alberta had resulted in dozens to hundreds of space rock specimens being found.

Watch below: After a large fireball was spotted over Alberta, many were left wondering if meteorite rocks have been left behind. The University of Alberta has some tips on how to differentiate a space rock from a regular rock.

A new video released by the University of Alberta hopes to help amateurs spot a meteorite.

"These rocks from space are pretty rare, and a lot of earth rocks can masquerade as the real thing," said Herd.

Test #1: Is the rock heavy?

Herd says a meteorite will feel surprisingly heavy for its size.

"Relative to a rock of the same size that you would normally come across, it's going to feel denser [or] heavier."

Test #2: Is the rock magnetic?

"Most meteorites will attract a magnet," he explained.

A typical fridge magnet will do the trick.

Test #3: Does the rock contain any bubbles or holes?

If it does, it is probably not a meteorite.

"Because meteorites have to be strong enough to make the trip," Herd said.

If there were bubbles or holes in the rock, it probably wouldn't have been strong enough to remain intact during its hot plunge to earth.

Test #4: Does the rock have a dark, broken crust on it?

After passing the above mentioned tests, a meteorite's outer shell looks much different than regular earth rocks.

Herd says the exterior will have a dark shell with small little cracks resembling a crushed egg shell.

"Maybe where it's flaked off, you see a lighter-coloured interior, then it almost certainly is a meteorite."

This is known as a fusion crust, according to Herd.

"It forms in the atmosphere as the rock comes screaming through it," at speeds of about 60,000 km/h.

This burning process doesn't affect the interior of the meteorite, which is why when the dark outside flakes off, the interior looks so much lighter.

"If you see something like that on a rock give me call," said Herd.

Watch below (Sept. 1): A giant bright light illuminated the sky over Edmonton Saturday night. The curiosity surrounding the fireball spread across the province. Sarah Komadina has the story.

If you've done all of the above tests yourself and think you've found a meteorite, the University of Alberta Faculty of Science has a reporting page.

There, rock spotters can upload photos and fill out a form about where the potential meteorite was collected to have the experts weigh in.

Herd says meteorites are priceless to the scientific community.

"Really, what it allows you to do is study the geology of an asteroid that dates back to the beginning of our solar system."

There is also commercial value to the rocks, with private collectors on the hunt for new specimens.

Any meteorite found on public Crown land is fair game to collect, but Herd warns to respect private property.

"It's important to note that wherever meteorites land, they are property of the land owner."

It's also prohibited to remove rocks from provincial or national parks, though Herd highly recommends taking exact GPS coordinates and bringing possible meteorite rocks to a park ranger.

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