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Science, Maths & Technology

Meteorite - or Meteor-wrong?

Updated Monday 10th August 2015

There's a simple test which can tell if you've found a rock - or something extra-terrestrial, explains meteorite hunter Rob Elliott

Meteorites come in all shapes and sizes but the small pieces greatly outnumber the larger pieces. They are rarely much larger than a small melon, and with this in mind, you should keep your eyes trained for small rusty looking rocks, perhaps even down to pea-sized.

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Rusty and still covered with mud, this little meteorite has been ground flaton one corner, exposing the bright flakes of metal mixed within the stone.Bright metal flakes are very often the key to identifying a newly found meteorite.

If using a meteorite cane, keep any rocks that easily cling to the magnet for inspection later, and remember where you found them – the location of a meteorite find is particularly important later, for mapping the meteorite "strewnfield".

Sadly, not all rocks that are drawn to a magnet will be true meteorites, and in some parts of the country, iron-rich basalt (a very common Earth rock) will cause many false alarms.

Once you have your finds safely back home, you can run some quick and easy tests yourself to check if any of them are meteorite candidates:

  • The magnet test: A true meteorite will show a reasonably strong attraction to a magnet.
  • The streak test: Take an unused ceramic tile and scratch the rock sample vigorously against the reverse, unglazed side of the tile.

If the sample leaves a dark grey streak like a lead pencil, the rock is probably magnetite (a common meteor-wrong).

If the sample leaves a reddish brown streak, then the rock is probably hematite (another common meteor-wrong).

A true meteorite will leave only a faint streak from it's rusty surface, and little more than that.

  • The grinding test: This is one of the most definitive first-stage tests for identifying a stony meteorite. Use a file to grind flat one of the corners of the rock. Meteorites are tough, so you may need some elbow grease and lots of patience here!

    Don't worry about damaging your possible meteorite or reducing its value at all – cutting and grinding is a very necessary part of early meteorite identification.

    Wipe off the dust from the ground-off area and look inside the rock. A plain and featureless texture suggests that it's just another Earthly meteor-wrong, but if you can see small, bright flakes of shiny metal mixed within the stone, it probably is a meteorite. Keep it a dry as possible and avoid handling it too much until it can be professionally authenticated.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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