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After the fireball come the meteorite hunters

Collectors descend on a rural area of Wisconsin, looking for pieces of the meteor that streaked across the Midwestern sky Wednesday night.

April 16, 2010|By William Mullen

Reporting from Chicago — Following a fireball that lit up the night sky and a sonic boom that rattled houses over the Midwest, another phenomenon is arriving in southwestern Wisconsin: meteorite hunters.

On Friday a man from Lake Forest, Ill., reported the recovery of the first pieces of a large, disintegrating meteor that lit up the night sky Wednesday.

Professional meteorite hunters and dealers have been descending on an area outside Livingston, a Wisconsin village of about 600.

That's where Terry Boudreaux, a private meteorite collector, found two neighboring farmers who each said they had found a small meteorite.

Boudreaux, 49, is a retired healthcare executive who has a large meteorite collection. He often shares it with the Field Museum's Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies, said Paul Sipiera, a curator at the center.

Sipiera said that, luckily for meteorite hunters, it is plowing time -- if larger meteorites were buried by the force of impact into fields, they will be exposed as farmers turn the soil.

Sipiera is president of the Planetary Studies Foundation, which buys meteorites for collection at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Sipiera's wife, Diane, has been screening calls to the foundation from potential hunters. She said she had heard from people as far away as England.

A meteorite is a surviving fragment of a disintegrating, fiery meteor as it plunges through Earth's atmosphere.

Wednesday's meteor fireball, also known as a bolide, burst across the sky over Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin shortly after 10 p.m.

On a farm outside Dixon, Ill., Becky Hoffman thought it was a transformer blowing up. In Iowa, state Trooper Tim Beckman mistook it for a flash of lightning, except then it roared across the sky.

Boudreaux said a friend alerted him to news of the fireball Wednesday night. He took his sons, Christopher, 17, and Evan, 13, out of school Thursday to drive to Wisconsin.

Boudreaux and his sons hadn't found anything when they stopped to talk to a farmer.

According to Boudreaux, the farmer said, "You see those chairs over there?" pointing to yard chairs by his driveway. "About 10:10 last night I was sitting there having a beer with a buddy, and the sky exploded over my head. The entire sky was like daylight.

"About 20 seconds later a rock hit the roof of the shed next to me. We got a flashlight, looked around and found it," he told Boudreaux.

The farmer, whom Boudreaux declined to identify, said his friend had a relative who works at the University of Wisconsin, and the university geology department had confirmed it was a 30-gram meteorite.

As they talked, the farmer's neighbor drove up and asked Boudreaux to look at another rock, he said, but it was a chunk of asphalt.

A few hours later, the second farmer drove up again.

"Hey, Terry, I found a meteorite," Boudreaux said the second farmer told him, and he was right this time.

He had found it beside his garden hose.

wmullen@tribune.com

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