"Hollywood has done a really good job misrepresenting meteors," says Steve Arnold, one of the Science Channel's Meteorite Men. They always show meteors as fireballs striking the ground, setting things on fire, but that's not the way it happens at all. While waiting for the peak hours of the annual Geminid Meteor Shower Monday night, I had the chance to talk with one of the two co-hosts of the science-based reality show, Meteorite Men about common misconceptions surrounding meteors.
Meteors vs. Meteorites
Steve Arnold, who is every bit as engaging in real life as he is on Meteorite Men, spent some time setting the record straight on meteors and meteorites during a phone interview this week.
"People are always saying 'I found a meteor,' " Arnold says, "but a meteor is a light phenomenon, a fireball in the sky." If the meteoroid that creates it survives and strikes the Earth, then it's a meteorite that someone can find. People are always getting these terms mixed up, Arnold told me.
Hollywood Fails the Meteor Science Test
In the movies and on television shows like Smallville, he says, fireballs strike the ground setting houses on fire. In reality, they hit the ground cold or just slightly warm. The fireball is short-lived and last just a few seconds until atmospheric braking slows the meteor to the point where it is no longer hot enough to burn. The atmosphere is very cold and the rock quickly cools and spends three or four minutes in dark flight, virtually invisible and travelling only a few hundred miles per hour. The small ones may even bounce like golf balls when they hit the ground.
"That Was a Close One"
With no nearby reference, it's very hard to tell how far away an object in the sky is, or how big it might be. Arnold says he gets reports all the time from people who say a fireball flew over them, "just 14 feet above the road." They tell how they or someone in their family followed after it and found what they are sure is the meteorite that caused it. In reality, the fireball is miles overhead, and what they have, says Arnold, is "just an ordinary rock or a piece of slag that fell off a train maybe a hundred years ago." They don't want to hear that their story is a mistake.
Million Dollar Meteorites
"People think that every meteorite is worth millions of dollars," Arnold adds, and noted that you can buy real meteorites for as little as $5 on eBay. "There are a very few that are worth a million dollars, but anyone can start collecting on a shoestring." Many find that "collecting meteorites is more intellectually stimulating than just memorizing the names of all the Beanie Babies," Arnold says. Whether they want to get into the chemistry of the rocks, or just want to collect a small piece of as many different meteorites as they can, there are many ways to collect.
Misunderstood Meteorite Men
"Meteorite hunters are entrepreneurs," Arnold says. "No institution pays people to do what I'm doing. Very few researchers or university professors can drop everything and go to the site of a new meteorite strike and search for four weeks."
That's where independent meteorite hunters come in. As businessmen, "we need our finds properly documented and authenticated in order to sell them," Arnold explains, "and science needs new rocks to study." Often meteorite hunters like Arnold will give a sample to be studied in exchange for the analysis that documents the meteorite.
"The commercial side of meteorite hunting is really symbiotic with the science side." Even so, the Science Channel star says, "there are a few scientists who think everything should belong to science," but so many of the scientific and museum specimens come from commercial meteorite hunters that it's a difficult argument to make.
Meteorite Men Airs on the Science Channel
"Our show, Meteorite Men, is educating people slowly," Arnold tells me, "we try to make sure there's good science in every episode, but we don't include every fact about meteorites every week. If you watch it one Tuesday, you'll learn a few things, and the next week, you'll learn something else."
Arnold says that although Meteorite Men appears on the Science Channel, he and his costar Geoff Notkin both feel that it's important to temper the science with enough fun and adventure to keep people's heads from exploding, so they'll come back week after week. So far, that's a formula that's working. New episodes air each Tuesday and are repeated several times throughout the week. A complete schedule is available at the Science Channel's Meteorite Men web pages here.
Brad Sylvester writes about the space program for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. Watching the Apollo missions through the static on a small black and white television sparked a lifelong interest in the space sciences for him. Since then, he has spent 40 years watching improvements in the technologies of space travel and our understanding of the universe unfold.