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Chelyabinsk gripped by 'meteor fever'

By Oxana Vozhdaeva and Oleg Boldyrev
BBC Russian Service, Chelyabinsk region

media captionRussian meteorite hunters search for a bit of space history

Russia's Chelyabinsk region is gripped by a kind of meteor fever, with thousands combing through fields trying to find meteorite fragments.

Near the villages of Deputatsky and Pervomaysky, an hour's drive from Chebarkul city, whole families of meteorite hunters are hard at work.

The meteorite passed over the area before reportedly crashing into the Chebarkul lake, and the snowy fields are covered with human footprints.

The nearby home of the Belizkaya family was filled with soot from their oven after the meteorite explosion, which caused the ceiling to crack.

Initially frightened, now the family calls that day their "rebirth", and have so far found three 1cm-wide meteorite fragments.

"We came with all the family, we do it out of interest, really, this is such a memento of that event," says Elena Belizkaya of the hoard. "We'll keep it at home for now, but if there's a chance to sell it, we'll sell some, of course!"

Meteorite hunters require no particular expertise as the hunt is relatively simple - fragments leave a small crater similar to a mouse's hole. If you find such a hole in a bank of snow you can be fairly certain - it is either a mouse or a meteorite.

The BBC team found four tiny stones within five minutes. Most of those fragments found near Deputatsky are pea-sized, but some can be much bigger - more like golf balls.

The biggest fragment we saw weighed about 100g. It was found by a citizen of Chelyabinsk, who said he had received several offers from friends in Moscow.

"It's like hunting or fishing," said one meteorite hunter. "When you see an animal, your heart starts to beat fast, and when you're fishing - it's like pulling the fishing rod and thinking there's something extraordinary. This is the same - you see a tiny hole, try it, and here it is."

Space stones

Scientists from the meteorite laboratory at the Russian Academy of Science collecting samples in Chelyabinsk say the more meteorite hunters the merrier, because there are only a couple of days of good weather left for the search.

image captionThe minerals of which the meteorite is made are common and not of great interest. But size matters.

Any wind or snowfall will destroy meteorite traces, and small fragments will simply not be found until the spring, when the fields will be covered by tall grass.

The minerals of which the meteorite is made are common and not of great interest, says junior research associate Dmitry Sadilenko.

But size matters. The Chebarkul space rock was one of the biggest objects to break up in our atmosphere in 100 years. And the bigger the fragment found, the more it is worth.

What's more, according to Russia's Subsoil Law, there are no legal grounds for prohibiting people from collecting, selling and exporting meteorite fragments.

However, potentially lucrative finds are already raising eyebrows. The internet is full of ads selling so-called fragments of the Chebarkul meteorite, with prices ranging from a few thousand to 500,000 roubles (£11,000).

The Chelyabinsk police department has already questioned one "businessman" - a resident of Emanzhelinka village - who has sold several fragments for 15,000 roubles. He could be charged with fraud if the stones are found to be fake.

Lucrative hole in the ice

Although scientists from the Ural Federal University have declared Chebarkul Lake to be the location of the main meteorite fall - suggesting a fragment as wide as 50cm may be lying on the lake bed - the Chelyabinsk authorities say they cannot confirm this.

Chelyabinsk deputy governor Igor Murog told the BBC that the large ice-hole thought to have been made by the meteorite could equally have been made by a fisherman.

image captionLocals charge the price of an expensive Moscow taxi ride to take meteorite hunters to the Chebarkul lake ice hole

Meteor hunters, though, seem not to care about official statements: Many are drilling holes in the ice and lowering magnets attached to ropes into the water. For now they are finding mostly tiny fragments.

Even Chebarkul Mayor Andrey Orlov joined in the hunt, sending divers into the lake's cold water soon after the meteorite fell, only for their mission to be thwarted by silt on the lake-bed. The hunt will continue on Monday.

He has announced a competition for business ideas as Chebarkul tries to profit from the global attention given to its meteorite landing.

And locals are already cashing in, offering to shuttle visitors to the site of the now-famous ice-hole via horse and cart - for the price of an expensive Moscow taxi fare.

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