A grin stretched across Robert Ward’s face Thursday afternoon as he talked about the three meteorites he found in less than four hours.
“It’s a really spectacular specimen,” the researcher said, showing off the largest of rocks he found on a frozen Hamburg Township lake. “Two days ago, this was hundreds of thousands of miles past the moon, and now I’m standing here holding it in my hand. It’s been a real good day.”
Tuesday's news of a meteor passing over metro Detroit and exploding in the atmosphere over Livingston County has brought out meteorite hunters like Ward to search for the precious stones. NASA scientists say the meteor broke up about 20 miles over Earth and showered most of its fragments along a 2½-mile swath in Hamburg Township, just west of the burg of Hamburg.
While dozens of amateur meteorite hunters perused a Hamburg Township park, Ward — and the team he brought to town with him — knew exactly where to look.
“We had really good data on this one,” he said. “The seismic data lined up with Doppler data and the witness data. Everything came together on this one.
Ward, a freelance planetary field researcher for scientists at different institutions, said he found his first meteorite — the size of pecan — at 9:50 a.m, only about 15 minutes into his hunt Thursday morning.
"I just saw a little black spot and that was it, but you know, so I was very fortunate to make the recovery but undoubtedly there’s more out there," Ward said.
He was right. He found another one shortly before 1 p.m. and another while he was on the phone with a Free Press reporter at about 1:39 p.m.
"I just found a meteorite, man!" Ward said over the phone after discovering what he described as a walnut-sized stone. Shortly after, he added: "All right man, it's happening."
Ward said he goes on a hunt about three times a year, usually outside the U.S.
“I’ve been arrested and tried for spying in the Middle East and almost abducted by the FARC — the cocaine guerillas — in Colombia," he said.
Given the chance, would he chose a different career?
“No,” he said. “No way.”
Ward said he plans to stay around until Sunday.
“I’m sure I’ll be back,” he said.
Every meteorite recovered, he said, adds to the knowledge of how the planets and other bodies in the solar system formed.
It can also be financially rewarding.
Darryl Pitt, a New York City resident and meteorite consultant to Christie’s auction house, is offering $20,000 for 1 kilo of recovered specimen.
All the meteorites known to exist, Pitt said, weigh less than the world’s annual output of gold.
“Meteorites are exceedingly rare,” Pitt said. “And every meteorite that’s found here, every single one, it’s gonna sell for at least its weight in gold.”
Pitt, who spoke to the Free Press on his way to the airport to fly to Detroit, was expected to hunt for meteorites Friday morning.
The way to spot meteorites, he said, is to get a sense of the topography and rocks in an area and look for what seems out of place in regard to the surroundings.
"The most important thing is to look for something that seems unnatural to the rest of the environment," Pitt said.
Ward, who flew in overnight Wednesday to metro Detroit from Prescott, Ariz., said it's going to become easier in the weeks to come to spot the stones as the snow melts.
Ward said they talk to landowners and get permission to hunt, and they don't normally give specific locations.
"We don't want a whole bunch of people rushing in and ruining their day after they've been nice enough to help us," Ward said. "You know, everybody thinks they're gonna go in, and you know, pick up what we missed but when we're done, there's really not anything to miss unless it's below the snow."
Meteorite hunters who think they struck gold can have their find inspected by experts during a pop-up event from 1-4 p.m. Saturday at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, 39221 Woodward Ave, Bloomfield Hills. The analysis is free with museum admission.