October 10, 1997
Various landing reports send searchers scurrying
By Jim Conley
A meteor streaked southeastward and exploded in a huge red-orange fireball east of El Paso at about 12:50 p.m. Thursday, treating residents to a rare daytime spectacle, scientists and observers said.
The spectacular blast sent out shockwaves that rattled windows, triggered car alarms and sent people scrambling for their telephones to find out what happened.
The space rock, which could have been billions of years old and as big as a car, was estimated to be traveling at least 30,000 mph - the equivalent of flying from El Paso to San Antonio in one minute - before it seemed to evaporate in a cloud of white smoke.
By late Thursday, no debris had been found, but people chased many reports throughout the day.
Police helicopters searched scorched land on Cooper Cattle Co. property about 20 miles north of the Border Patrol checkpoint outside El Paso on Highway 62-180, but the burn marks weren't thought to be caused by a meteor strike.
"We had two different fires out here a couple of days ago during the lightning storms," ranch foreman Dub Pruitt said.
People from Anthony, Texas, to the Davis Mountains reported seeing or hearing the entry of the interplanetary object into Earth's atmosphere. The flash and boom caused many people to fear the explosion of an errant test missile or the crash of an airliner.
But within an hour, an off-duty public information specialist at McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains cleared up the mystery by describing what he said could only have been a rare daylight sighting of an exploding meteor perhaps 10 to 15 miles high.
"I saw a very bright flash of light, bright orange-red, similar to a distant sunset," said Robert Simpson, the McDonald spokesman, who was outside his Davis Mountains home about 185 miles southeast of El Paso.
"It covered about 10 percent of the horizon and was moving down at about a 70-degree angle. I looked at my watch and it was 1:47 (12:47 p.m. MDT). It lasted about one second, but left a white smoke trail for 10 minutes.
"I knew it had to be a meteor, although space debris can look like that," said Simpson, who said daylight meteor sightings occur only about once a year on the planet.
But no manmade space debris had entered the atmosphere since about sunup, and that was south of the equator, said Maj. Steve Boylan, U.S. Air Force North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman in Colorado Springs.
People living along a 200-mile stretch of southern New Mexico and West Texas reported seeing a flash and hearing the blast, which most likely was the result of the meteor exploding or producing sonic booms on its rapid descent through the atmosphere.
"It was strange, but it felt like it was right in my back yard. I searched my roof thinking someone threw a rock or was trying to break in," said Martha Senteno, who lives in East El Paso near Montwood High School. After hearing about the meteor, she returned home to search for debris.
"Who knows, there may be a piece of history here," she said.
Command post in NM
The Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department, New Mexico State Police and Las Cruces police set up a command post at about 2 p.m. west of the Organ Mountains near Baylor Canyon after several witnesses reported smoke rising from the base of the mountains.
"I saw a large flash like an explosion in the sky," said Steven Marquez, 25, who was working in his yard near the Organ Mountains outside Las Cruces. "Something fell off of it and left a huge cloud of smoke over there by the mountains."
Marquez called 911 and reported the sighting, fearing that a small plane had crashed.
The police command post was set up near at the head of Baylor Canyon Trail east of Las Cruces as U.S. Army Reserve helicopters used infrared sensors to look for pieces of debris from the object.
"What they are looking for is any debris that is still hot or anything that came off the object," Cano said.
No debris was found.
"Hearing the explosion means it was very close, probably within 20 miles as a general rule of thumb," said Bill Wren of McDonald Observatory. "This one is a very exciting event ... very rare."
"I've seen thousands of them at night but never one in the daytime before," Simpson said. "I'd jump in my pickup right now and come look for it if I didn't have to work (today)."
"A meteorite (a space rock found on Earth) can be quite valuable," Wren said, "although that depends on the composition and quality. Typically, meteorites wholesale for about $50 a pound."
The observatory's largest one on display is about the size of a small end table and weighs 1,500 pounds, Simpson said.
They're usually composed of nickel and iron. But most of the objects that enter the atmosphere are of low-density material that never reach Earth, scientists say.
Estimates are that more than 19,000 meteorites heavier than 3.5 ounces land annually, but most fall in deserts and oceans. Fewer than 10 a year are ever known to science, according to astronomy writer Patrick Moore's definitive "International Encyclopedia of Astronomy."
A solar system clue
Donald Rathbun of El Paso, a medical doctor who also teaches a meteorite course for UTEP's continuing education program, said meteorites are important "because these are samples of our solar system that were the only objects we had to study how our planets originated - until we got the moon rocks.
"Chemical analysis of the meteorites yields a lot of information," said Rathbun, who owns a few meteorites himself,including a 6.5 pounder the size of a cantaloupe he found around Santa Teresa.
"The theory is that they formed at the same time as the solar system," said Neal Miller, spokesman for New Mexico State University's astronomy department. "They're billions of years old so they do lend clues as to how the solar system was found."
UTEP physics and astronomy professor Verne Smith said the object easily could have exploded without anything of size hitting the ground.
"For something to do major damage, you would need one the size of an airplane," Smith said. "The one that created Meteor Crater in Arizona about 50,000 years ago would have been about the size of a 747.
"This thing sounded like it wasn't terribly large," Smith said of Thursday's meteor. "I don't think people should be terribly preoccupied about these things hitting the earth. There's nothing you can really to prevent it from occurring."
John Peterson, director of the El Paso Independent School District's Planetarium, said the event could have been associated with the periodic Draconid meteor shower.
The event, which occurs rarely but customarily on Oct. 9 or 10, can result in only a few or as many as 5,000 meteors an hour. Peterson said further study is needed to see if El Paso's meteor was part of that group.
Wren explained meteor events as occurring when the particles of space matter, which can range from speck size to as big as a house, heat up from friction as they enter Earth's atmosphere, resulting in light being emitted.
"Earth acts like a big broom that sweeps through all this matter as we orbit the sun," Wren said. "Most of it just burns up. But the larger ones survive the fiery trip."
Some astronomical distinctions:
· A meteoroid is a rock flying through space.
· A meteor is the streak of light a meteoroid makes as it burns out in Earth's upper atmosphere.
· A meteorite is a space rock found on Earth.
El Paso Times reporters Patrick C. McDonnell, Robert Holguin and David Bennett contributed to this story.