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Chicken Little was right

And Steve Arnold is there to pick up the pieces of sky, in Kansas or Chile or Oman. Don't laugh: His meteorites are worth a bundle.

October 27, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

The family has joined him on a few of his excursions, including one to Chicago in 2003, when pieces of a meteorite showered the nearby suburbs. Arnold bought a bicycle at Kmart and cruised the streets, harvesting fragments of space rock from the gutters. He later sold the rocks for about $25,000.

In 2005, Arnold and his wife traveled to Oman, a newly popular meteorite hunting ground. They scooped up 151 meteorites lying in plain sight in the desert. But when they got back to their hotel they were warned that police had been asking questions about meteorite hunters.

The Arnolds drove back into the desert and hid the rocks. The next day they retrieved them and shipped them home and then left the country. Arnold still has no idea why police were looking for meteorite hunters -- he thinks they may have been looking for another group, but he'd prefer not to know.

For years, though, Arnold's list of hunting grounds was topped by a less exotic place -- western Kansas. Ten percent of the meteorites found in the U.S. have come from that region, which was showered with debris when a huge meteor broke up in the atmosphere untold thousands of years ago.

Homesteaders were the first to recognize the unusual richness of the land. Eliza Kimberly in the 1880s was convinced the heavy rocks shattering her family's plows were meteorites, and insisted on collecting them. She was proved right when she sold them to universities to pay off her mortgage. The homestead was promptly dubbed "the meteorite farm."

Other farmers continued to occasionally dig up meteorites in the stretch of Kiowa County near the meteorite farm, between the towns of Haviland and Greensburg. Prospectors swept through the area and discovered a half-ton pallasite that Greensburg displayed next to its other municipal treasure, the world's largest hand-dug well. The town lined the highway with signs advertising its display.

Arnold browsed the journals of meteorite hunters who had explored that stretch, and determined that the land wasn't as thoroughly searched as others believed. He didn't know how to comb such a vast area for buried meteorites until 2005, when he bumped into an Argentine hunter at a meteorite show in Denver. The South American told him about an extra-wide detector he used to search for buried rocks.

Arnold drove through Greensburg on his way home from the show and decided to try his luck. He got permission from one farmer to search his land, in return for a share of any rocks found.

Then he custom-ordered the giant detector from a German company and had it shipped to Kansas. The detector is a rectangular coil of wires sheathed in PVC piping; it shrieks when its regular pulse of energy is disrupted by an iron object.

Arnold built a wooden platform, and attached wheels that he bought at Lowe's. He mounted the detector and began manually dragging the contraption through the field. Within three hours, he found a 280-pound meteorite. Two weeks later, he dug up the big pallasite.

Word of Arnold's discovery resounded throughout the meteorite world. A team from the Houston Museum of Natural Science came to accompany him on digs. A crew from the Travel Channel followed him on others. He upgraded to using a tractor to tow his metal detector rig, then an ATV, and now his Hummer.

He became a local celebrity. A few weeks after the big find, Arnold and his partner in the Kansas hunt, a San Antonio lawyer and meteorite fanatic named Phil Mani, invited farmers to a barbecue in Haviland and signed agreements with most of them to prospect their land. Haviland inaugurated an annual Meteorite Festival, holding a parade and displaying the big pallasite.

"Steve brought the meteorites back into focus," said Steve Hewitt, city manager of Greensburg. "It had become -- well, everyone around here has found a meteorite or two. Steve just had the gung-ho to go out and look for more."

Arnold has found 33 meteorites in Kansas, making farmers who share in the sales proceeds very happy. Milton and Wynona Ross' son found a meteorite in the 1980s and sold it for a decent sum, but Arnold's finds are bringing in more money than they expected.

"They've been our best crop," joked Milton, 84.

In May, a tornado flattened Greensburg and killed nine. It tore the roof off a small house Arnold had bought to use as his base of operations. Half of the town's population of 1,600 still has not returned, and most of those who have are living in government-issued trailers.

Arnold and other meteorite enthusiasts helped raise $12,000 for Greensburg in a raffle of space rocks and memorabilia at a meteorite show last month in Denver. The town is hoping to build a museum about extreme weather and meteorites.

To many Kansans, the two are intertwined.

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