‘It’s a race’: Inside the hobbyist hunt for a piece of Salt Lake City’s meteor

A California man and “meteorite hunter” unearthed a piece around the size of a softball that weighs 484 grams.

After driving more than 500 miles and searching for days, Mark Dayton finally found what he’d been looking for, so he turned on his video camera and started to talk.

“There’s gonna be a meteorite inside this hole,” he remembers recording.

Standing in the salt flats west of the Great Salt Lake’s waters, not a soul in sight for miles in any direction, he began to dig.

A foot of progress later, and he was proven right.

A black rock was nestled inside the plunge hole he’d found, and just like that, Dayton had uncovered a piece of meteorite likely as old as the solar system itself — around 4.56 billion years old.

He made the discovery Tuesday afternoon around 4 p.m., after days of sunny, arduous work.

“It’s a really tough hunt, though, man,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s super dry and hot out there, and it’s miles from any roads. And it requires great physical effort to get out there and try to find the pieces.”

According to a researcher at the University of Utah, there is a high likelihood that the rock Dayton found is a piece of the same meteor that thundered over Salt Lake City just two weeks ago.

‘That is definitely a meteorite’

The rock is about the size of a softball, Dayton said, but that’s where the similarities end. For starters, the space rock is much heavier than a softball, weighing 484 grams, according to Dayton, which is more than a pound.

“It’s super heavy, because it has so much metal in it,” he said. “If you were to hold it in your hand, you’d be shocked at the weight.”

Of the dozen or so pieces that have been recovered so far, he said his is the largest, making it, for now, the “main mass.”

The meteorite’s thin outer layer — known as the fusion crust — is a deep black color from melting as it fell through the atmosphere. And the white, spiderweb-like cracks along its surface are salts that were either left there upon impact or have grown in the time since, according to Jim Karner, a research associate professor at the University of Utah.

As soon as he saw pictures of Dayton’s find, Karner was unequivocal in his assessment. “Well, that is definitely a meteorite,” he said.

But is it from the same fall that startled residents out of bed on Aug. 13?

It certainly looks that way. From his “quick and dirty” perusal, Karner said the pictured rock looked relatively fresh; the fragile fusion crust had not deteriorated significantly. Another way to gauge a meteorite’s freshness is its “rustiness,” he said, since most samples corrode quickly due to their metallic makeup.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A meteorite found by Mark Dayton, in the desert near Tooele, shown on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022.

While different meteorites have likely landed in that area, Karner said Dayton’s rock “looks a lot like the samples that I’ve seen so far.”

And he would know. Recently, the University of Utah was given a different piece of the meteor from another hunter, and researchers are currently working through the official process to get it classified and named.

While Dayton received several offers to purchase his piece of the meteorite, he declined, opting to keep it for his collection.

He couldn’t help but gushing about his discovery during a phone interview. “You’re holding a rock in your hand that was literally in space 10 days ago,” he said.

That surreal feeling is one of the reasons he and other enthusiasts chase meteors across the country.

The ‘race’ to hunt meteorites

On the morning of Aug. 13, the sonic boom heard along the Wasatch Front served not only as an alarm clock for some sleepy residents, but also a “starting gun” for meteorite enthusiasts around the globe.

Soon, Salt Lake City was host to a drove of visiting scientists — and meteorite hunters.

That’s what Dayton is, at least part time.

Primarily a country musician hailing from California, he couldn’t drop everything to make a cross-country trip to Salt Lake City right away. He had two upcoming shows booked and had to wait until his schedule cleared.

“I wanted to come on the 14th, you know, but I had two more shows I had to do,” he said.

Instead, he waited until Sunday. Once he got to Utah, he stayed at the same Comfort Inn that many scientists and other meteorite hunters did. Though they operated from the same base, there was little collaboration between hunters, Dayton said.

“It’s a race,” he said. “... Very few guys are telling each other any secret information, that’s for sure. They’re all out there trying to find a piece.”

So far, the results of the competition have come in quickly, and pieces of the meteorite are being found at a startling pace. “The takeaway message here is that this is an amazingly rare event,” Karner said, “because we recovered the rock just three days after it came to Earth.”

The fall over Salt Lake City was unique for a number of reasons, Dayton explained. The first rarity was the meteor flew over a major urban area like Utah’s capital, meaning there were numerous eye witnesses and even video recordings of the fiery ball shooting across the sky. It also happened during the daytime, so witnesses had a much better idea of where the meteor was headed.

First-hand accounts are important, since they give hunters the data needed to postulate a meteor’s trajectory.

Once they have the trajectory and approximate time of the fall, scientists and hunters use Doppler radar data, which is generally used to track precipitation, to make informed guesses about where chunks of the space rock landed.

Dayton said the scientific community has a particular interest in this sort of data, and during this hunt, they made it available to the public.

“They can see not only precipitation, water droplets with radar, but they can also see flocks of birds and airplanes, and they can see rocks falling from the sky,” he said. “And we’re able to slice through time, through milliseconds, and watch those rocks move. And we can kind of predict a path.”

And then the race is on.

“Basically, at that point, it’s a treasure map, right?” he said. “Because X marks the spot.”

Or spots. The hunt isn’t over, and it’s possible many more pieces of meteorite are strewn around the Great Salt Lake, still to be discovered.

Based on the number of calls he’s been receiving, Dayton thinks word will start spreading soon, and increasing numbers of people will join the hunt.

“Now it’s gonna get a little more press,” he said, “and I think more people will come.”

He will not be among them, however. He packed up and headed home to California the day after he uncovered his prize, taking his own little piece of the universe with him.

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