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Skip Wilson's Legacy: Systematic Meteorite Recovery


Historically, meteorite recovery has been a random occurrence dependant upon the occasional witnessed fall or the chance discovery of a meteorite that fell long ago.  In the 1960's, Skip Wilson of Portales, NM set out to try something new.  He would wander the backcountry of Roosevelt County in search of new meteorites ("cold finds").

 

Skip used meteorite influx estimates to calculate the expected concentration of meteorites per 100 square miles.  The result showed that one would need to search an overwhelming amount of land to find a meteorite.  Skip soon identified a more practical solution.  He would search small but heavily eroded areas where meteorites should have accumulated for many thousands of years, dramatically increasing the meteorite density per square mile.

 

The arid land of southeastern New Mexico was an ideal setting for Skip's experiment.  At the turn of the century, local farmers had plowed the thin layers of soil and subsequent over-farming caused the soil to blow in dust-bowl fashion.  The deflated areas (called "blowouts") exposed thousands of years of history.  Ordinary rocks, artifacts, and meteorites concentrated as lag deposits as the surrounding soil blew away.

 

 

Over the years, Skip trained his eyes to recognize the rusty-brown color of weathered meteorites and succeeded in plucking these from other lag deposits.  Since 1966, Skip has found more than 100 meteorites and this number continues to grow.  The prolific meteorite collector Harvey Nininger once declared that Skip was the only person that could go out and find a meteorite anytime he wanted to.

 

Against all odds, the meteorite gods shined upon Skip Wilson once again in 1998 when he was an "ear-witness" to a meteor explosion.  This daytime fireball sent a stony meteorite hurling through his neighbor's barn!  After finding weathered meteorites for more than 30 years, Skip enjoyed recovering several fresh stones from a fall that he actually witnessed.

 

Skip Wilson, pioneer of systematic meteorite recovery. The left photo shows him in 1971, after recovering 67 cold finds.  The center photo was taken in 1990, during my first visit with Skip.  The right photo shows Skip holding a fragment of the Portales Valley meteorite fall of 1998.  My colleague and I found this meteorite less than 1 mile from Skip's home.

 

In 1990, I embarked on a 1000 mile road trip to meet Skip.  He took me to his favorite blowout and set down a meteorite.  He told me to walk around the meteorite, taking note of variations in color as I examined the meteorite from different angles.  From some directions the space rock looked indistinct...like every other cobble...and its features were blurred with its shadows.  But from one angle, with the sun to my back, the meteorite vividly broadcast its characteristic rusty-brown color.  I learned lesson #1...to always search with the sun to my back.  A few minutes later, Skip walked over to a small stone in the distance and picked up his newest stony meteorite (center photo above).  I would have to wait several years before finding my first stony meteorite.  In the summer of 1993, I picked up a small fragment 100 miles to the south of Skip's hunting ground.  I would later learn that my find was paired to a small stone that NASA scientist Mike Zolensky and colleagues found a few years prior in the same location.

 

A few years ago, astrophysicist Rob Matson decided to name one of his asteroid discoveries in recognition of Skip's contributions to meteorite recovery.  I was honored to write the following "asteroid citation" for the man that taught me (and many others) to hunt space stones.

 

ASTEROID SKIPWILSON

Asteroid Name: (195998) skipwilson.

Namesake's Occupation: Portales City Employee (retired).

Asteroid Discovered By: Robert D. Matson on 2002 09 01 at Haleakala.

Ivan "Skip" Wilson (b. 1941) is a pioneer of systematic meteorite recovery. He has found over 100 distinct meteorites in the blowouts of eastern New Mexico since 1966, and witnessed and recovered the 1998 Portales Valley fall. He has coauthored papers about meteorite accumulation rates and pairing.

 

Today, many hobbyists scan dry lake beds and other old surfaces in search of cold finds.  Walking in Skip's footsteps, modern day meteorites hunters have discovered thousands of meteorites in the hot deserts of the southwestern US, Africa, and Australia.

 

Following the techniques of Skip Wilson, the author made these "cold finds" on an old (heavily eroded) surface in the California desert.

 

www.MeteoritesWanted.com