Stars fall on Alabama, meteorite hunters find them in a flash

Dr. Moody James shows where Ann Hodges was struck in the hip by an 8.5 lb meteorite that crashed through her roof (right). The photos appeared in the Dec. 13, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

It’s been 58 years since the last witnessed meteorite fell from Alabama skies. That one made a big impression. It was the first confirmed extraterrestrial object to injure a human being. On November 30, 1954 at 2:46 p.m. an 8.5 lb rock crashed through the roof of a home not far from the town of Sylacauga (sil-la-CAW-ga).

The grapefruit-sized Sylacauga meteorite that struck Hodges

It hit a radio console, bounced off the floor and struck the hand and hip of 31-year-old Ann Hodges who was asleep on the couch at the time. She awoke in surprise and pain thinking that a space heater had blown up, but when she noticed the hole in the roof and rock on the floor, Hodges figured the neighborhood kids had been up to no good.

Fortunately her injuries weren’t serious. Ann became a sudden celebrity; her photo even appeared on the cover of Life magazine with a story titled “A Big Bruiser From The Sky”. In 1956 she donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa, where you can still see it to this day. A second meteorite from the fall weighing 3.7 lbs. was picked up the following day by Julius K. McKinney in the middle of a dirt road. McKinney sold his fragment to the Smithsonian and used the money to purchase a small farm and a used car. These days a single gram – if you can find any – costs about ten grand.

Ann and her husband Hewlett Hodges with the roof hole (left). At the time, the Hodges lived across the way from the Comet Drive-In movie theater. Cosmic coincidence.

For more on the fall including how the meteorite turned out to be anything but good luck for  Hodges, click HERE and HERE.

Fast forward to October 30, 2012. That evening at 5:30 p.m. (CDT) a boulder-sized meteor broke into pieces as it came booming over northern Alabama between Birmingham and Huntsville. The sonic boom created by the faster-than-sound meteorite even registered on several area seismographs. Doppler weather radar sweeps picked up a rain of cosmic fragments and meteorite hunters were soon on the ground including a six-member NASA team.

Front and back side of the first meteorite found from the Alabama fall found by the search team of Stephen Beck, Tommy Brown, Jerry Hinkle, and Robert Woolard. It’s provisionally named Addison. The stone is covered in black fusion crust, features a metal vein (upper right) and weighs about 60 grams or 2 ounces. Credit: Tommy Brown

Meanwhile another pair of hunters, Robert Woolard and his pal Jerry Hinkle of Little Rock, Ark., had just subscribed to Galactic Analytics, a service run by Marc Fries that retrieves and examines Doppler radar weather data to create maps of potential meteorite falls. With maps in hand, Hinkle jetted off to Alabama to meet up with Woolard’s other friends, Tommy Brown and Stephen Beck, and by the end of the day Saturday (Nov. 3), they’d found the first meteorite!

Weather radar data (in blue) indicates the trail of the meteorite that fell in northern California near Sutter’s Mill on April 22, 2012. Credit: Google Earth / Marc Fries

This is incredible for at least two reasons. First, it took only 4 days from fall to find, proving yet again that radar is quickly becoming the tool of choice for locating fresh-falling meteorites.

Doppler’s better than eyewitness accounts because meteors stop flaring around 30 miles up yet continue moving along their flight path. Called “dark flight”, this portion of a meteorite’s journey may be invisible to the eye but detectable by reflected radio waves. The closer we’re able to track potential meteorites before they strike the ground, the better our chances of finding them.

Meteorites are named after the closest city or landmark to where they’re found. Provisionally named “Addison”, this is the 11th witnessed meteorite fall of the year,  the most seen in one year since the new century began. So if it seems I’ve been writing a lot about meteorite falls lately, there’s a good reason for it. We’re on a hot streak!

Doris Day sings Stars Fell on Alabama 

Maybe you’re familiar with the 1930s tune Stars Fell on Alabama. It was inspired by yet another meteoric event – the spectacular 1833 Leonid meteor storm, when thousands of meteors an hour rained from the sky. Enjoy.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

6 thoughts on “Stars fall on Alabama, meteorite hunters find them in a flash

  1. Hi Bob, this is a very interesting radar technic. I thought radars would just picture every so often what’s happening in the sky. But to spot these meteor trails,that does last long, the radars would have to record what’s happening up there all the time? Do you know if weather radar record the meteorite itself or its trail?

    • Sebastien,
      Doppler radar can pick up both the fragments and the dust trail. Good question about whether the radar is continuous or periodic. I’ve heard that the number of times it sweeps can vary from occasional to frequently. I’ll see if I can get a better answer on that.

  2. Great blog tonight Bob I enjoyed reading every part of it, but I had a bit of a chuckle to myself too as when my kids were younger I always went around the house singing Doris Day songs and it used to drive them mad but I admit I still do it occasionally but they just walk out the room and leave me now singing away lol :-)

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