Two geologists from Washington traveled to north-central Montana last week after an accidental discovery of what they believe is a "new" meteorite impact crater, located just southeast of Thornhill Butte.

The Havre Daily caught up with the two St. Martin University students at Havre's Fifth Street Grind and Short Stop Thursday. The discoverers were on their way to a local laundry to dry their clothes, drenched in the previous day's rain, before heading back out in their home-built buggy, "the Mule" designed for rugged terrain.

Joe D'Alelio and Gabriel Mainwaring of Shelton, Wash. Said they had been using Google Earth to locate fossil hunting grounds when "dumb luck" led the satellite view to scan over a formation familiar, yet very exciting. "We zoomed in and saw it had the form of a meteorite impact crater," D'Alelio said.

"We checked with the USGS (United States Geological Survey) and there was no record of it. The only one they have is south of the Missouri River about 200 miles. This one is located north of the DY Junction (Highways 66 and 191). You can see it from Highway 66. We loaded up the Mule and headed out Monday and camped when we got to the crater. We studied the rim, the bowl and surrounding area and took samples."

Much like Daniel Moreau Barringer, who proved the famous Meteor Crater in Arizona in 1902, D'Alelio and Mainwaring said they had not spent a full day before they knew the crater had been caused by meteorite impact. "It's about a mile wide, rim to rim and the sandstone layers are upside down," D'Alelio said. "The white is on top from the impact. You can measure the red sandstone to see how thick it is and it tells you the age. We are guessing it hit between 10,000 to 50,000 years ago, which is relatively new.

"We collected samples of the rocks and we'll take them back to the University of Washington to analyze. We will be looking for basically two things. First is the presence of iridium, an element only found in meteorites. The second thing is when a meteorite hits the ground the heat and pressure cause what is known as 'shocked quartz.' It changes the crystalline structure, so we will check for that.

Then we will call the USGS and name the crater "Bender Crater," for Les and Karen Bender (owners of Havre's Bender Wild Game Processing)." D'Alelio and Mainwaring had completed their site research Wednesday and thought to do a little site seeing around the area before heading home, when they found the Mule's catalytic converter had become disengaged from the exhaust pipe.

It was Les and Karen Bender who became their rescuers. "We tried to fix the Mule with a tin can and a hose clamp," Mainwaring said. "Some people stopped and we asked them where the nearest town was. We showed them our photos and pointed out where the crater was.

Les and Karen said they had driven by there thousands of times and had never seen it, but once we pointed it out they could see. "We told them we had to get going, but then the Mule wouldn't go. The catalytic converter was still leaking. The Benders ended up towing us all the way to Havre, 96 miles. They fed us dinner and let us sleep in their home for the night. My wife is having a baby in September and Karen even gave me a baby blanket she had made. They were a real blessing to us."

D'Alelio said "They were so fantastic to us, a real testament to the people of Montana, Gabe is planning to move here now. He's going to go home and convince his wife. And we decided if this crater proves out, we Are going to name it Bender Crater in honor of them. Les even bought the parts to fix the Mule.

They were just amazing to us." D'Alelio and Mainwaring said they planned to do a little gold panning in Landusky then scope out another possible crater site, before returning home today. "We will defiantly let you know the outcome of the research," they said. "We can only say it is a possible impact crater at this point, but we feel certain and we think there are probably several more around this area, but we don't want to say where just yet."

Meteorite craters pull in tourists There is something about human beings' total lack of control over space and its affects on Earth that inspires great curiosity, and in turn tourism. One example is the Barringer Meteorite Crater (also known as "Meteor Crater") is a gigantic hole in the middle of the Arizona sandstone desert. The rim of smashed and jumbled boulders, some the size of buildings, rises 150 feet above the level of the surrounding plain.

The crater itself is nearly a mile wide, and 570 feet deep. The crater, first proven in the early 1900s to have been caused by a meteorite crashing into Earth, is today a major tourist attraction.

The Meteor Crater Visitor Center includes displays on the never-ending process of impacts and collisions in the solar system; an interactive learning center with 24 hands-on exhibits; a theatre, gift shop, two restaurants; gardens; and offers tours of the giant crater formed thousands of years ago when a giant fiery rock slammed into Earth.

Along with Montana's Dinosaur trail, visitors may also in the future tour the meteorite craters once thought responsible for the dinosaur extinction. Dinosaurs, meteors and life today In 1902, Daniel Moreau Barringer, a successful mining engineer, heard about the crater in Arizona.

When he learned that small balls of meteoritic iron were randomly mixed with the ejected rocks of the crater rim, he immediately concluded that the crater had resulted from a meteorite impact. If the meteorites had fallen at a different time from the time than when the crater was formed, they would have appeared in separate layers from the ejected rock.

Barringer presented his impact origin theory of the crater to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 1906 and 1909. His evidence included a cross section of crater rim showing overturned rock layers. For years people involved in the historical sciences believed terrestrial impacts were something that only happened in Earth's very early history.

In 1980, Nobel Prize winning physicist Luis Alvary and his colleagues published a paper in "Science" magazine, arguing that a cosmic impact had led to the extinction of dinosaurs. Alvary rested his case on large amounts of the meteorite element iridium being present in geological layers dating back to the time dinosaurs vanished.

By 1990, most astronomers accepted that craters on the moon had been caused by impacts of space debris and not by volcanoes as once thought. Astronomers Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and Dave Levy discovered a new comet in the Earth's solar system in orbit around Jupiter in1993. Tidal forces of the large planet caused the comet to disintegrate over the next year and astronomers observed the fragments proceed around the sun then head back on a collision course for Jupiter.

Between July 16 and 22, 1994, fragments bombarded the visible surface of Jupiter causing fireballs 500 times the size of Earth to leave huge scars on Jupiter's southern surface.

There are about 180 meteorite craters identified on Earth's dry land to date. While most cosmic debris disintegrates before ever entering Earth's atmosphere, the Jupiter attack proved that meteorites are not just a thing of the past.