Meteor man

Locals go into space-rock business

— Bill Peck didn't really start his business in order to make a pile of money, but he's found a little immortality along the way. And from Peck's perspective, there's more to being in business than the bottom line.

Peck's business is called meteoritemaps.com. Through his Web site, he is selling a beautifully reproduced map that details more than 1,200 places where meteorite have fallen throughout North America and the locations of many more palces wher meteorites have been found. The map is meant to increase public understanding of meteorites and to serve as a guide for collectors.

Meteorites are among the least researched astronomical phenomena, Peck said. He recognized that by adding to the store of knowledge about them, he could make a contribution to the body of scientific knowledge, in effect staking a small claim to immortality. Besides, he's intensely curious about meteorites.

A former planetarium director, Peck has an undergraduate degree in astronomy and physics. He recently completed his master's degree at the University of Wyoming, and his business is an outgrowth of his master's thesis.

"I thought I knew about meteorites, but when I found out I didn't, that's when I got interested," Peck said. "It's a hole in education. They don't teach it in college. My curiosity led to wanting to produce something that could be appreciated. It wasn't really to make money, although it has made money. I figure after I'm gone, there always will be one of these maps on somebody's wall."

Peck sought advice from Scott Ford at the Small Business Development Center at Colorado Mountain College, where Peck's wife, Janie Swartz-Peck teaches English. He formed a sole proprietorship to begin publishing his map.

Collecting data on meteorite falls and finds wasn't the most difficult part of the process. An organization called the Meteorological Society publishes a database containing information with latitude and longitude down to minutes, and in some cases, hundredths of minutes. However, the society has never bothered to plot the locations on a map.

The Pecks' meteorite map, plotted on geographical information system software, is much more than a simple outline of the United States covered with dots signifying where meteorites have landed and been found. Instead, it's designed to educate with a combination of geology and geography.

When Peck began using geographical information system software to plot existing data about meteorite falls and finds, he fully expected meteorites to be randomly scattered across the continent, and that's true of meteorite falls. But the "finds" are influenced by the varying "geomorphic regions" of the continent. In other words, the frequency with which meteorites are found is influenced greatly, Peck concluded, by terrestrial forces which vary greatly with location.

Peck's master's thesis dealt with these geomorphic regions as they related to meteorite finds.

The map also identifies the mass of meteorites that have been found, their classification, relative sizes of impact craters and strewn fields (where significant numbers of meteorite finds have resulted from large impacts or explosions).

His map reveals that meteorites are rarely found along coastlines, or for that matter, in the Rocky Mountains. They are much more frequently found on the high steppes of the American plains, where short-grass prairie predominates.

Simply put, meteorites are far easier to spot in regions where there is little vegetation and few other rocks to obscure them. Factors like erosion also play a role in where meteorites are found.

Peck made the map with his GIS software, ArcView, saved the 80 megabyte file on a Zip disk and mailed it off to a printer. He considered printing as many as 5,000 or 10,000 because of the price breaks offered by the printer, but ultimately decided to be conservative, and had just 1,000 maps printed.

"I was pretty sure I could sell a couple hundred and make my money back right off," Peck said.

He invested $3,500 in the first press run and is selling the maps for $25, or $30 laminated.

Thus far, the Pecks have sold about 500 of the maps, easily making back the cash they invested in the business. The proceeds are being set aside to make new maps from other regions of the world. But Bill says he is going to take his time before jumping in with maps of Europe, Mexico and Africa.

Bill said he gives credit to his wife for pushing the sales of maps.

"Janie began selling some on ebay, just to get a feel for what people would pay for them," Bill said. Ebay also promotes the map through its Web site and e-mails a flier to a select list of people.

Janie predicts map sales will get a boost this summer when articles are scheduled to appear in two publications, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy.

By mapping meteorites, Bill Peck said he doesn't believe he's found the path to fame and fortune. But he's optimistic that his small business will make a modest contribution to science, and perhaps leave a personal legacy.

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