[meteorite-list] Prospectors, Scientists Vie for Rocks More Precious Than Gold (Meteorites)

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Mon Feb 27 01:57:57 2006
Message-ID: <200602270656.k1R6uDO25470_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Prospectors, scientists vie for rocks more precious than gold
By Joshua Brownt
The Boston Globe
February 27, 2006

Meteorites are hot rocks. This month, collectors at the Tucson Gem and
Mineral Show in Arizona were bidding nearly $5,000 per gram for slivers
from some rare ones. Whole meteorites that exploded from the moon or
Mars can have a price tag in the millions.

Because of the market value, an expanding number of private hunters are
scouring deserts around the world -- where the dry climate preserves
meteorites -- and the global supply of meteorites is being harvested

This worries some scientists who study meteorites for clues about the
early life of our solar system. They wonder how many new finds they'll
get access to before the space rocks are sliced into collectible
fragments and disappear into private collections.

''I've seen huge changes in the past five years," said Dante Lauretta, a
meteorite scientist at the University of Arizona. In 1991 there were
five major meteorite dealers in the world; earlier this month there were
dozens at the Tucson show alone, he said, and Internet sites are packed
with meteorites for sale. ''The commercial meteorite business has
absolutely taken off."

But instead of competing with the commercial dealers, Lauretta and
meteorite prospector Marvin Killgore have come up with a way to for the
dealers to solve the scientists' problem -- while the scientists solve
one of the dealers' problems.

Last month the Killgores set up the Southwest Meteorite Center at the
University of Arizona. In exchange for getting a piece of a dealer's
meteorite to study and add to their lending library, the center's
scientists will verify and classify the dealer's rock so customers will
know what they are buying.

''Dealers want to have an official meteorite as recognized by the
nomenclature committee of the Meteoritical Society," Lauretta said. But
now, with so many specimens to examine, it can take months or years
before a qualified researcher can make a positive identification using a
mass spectrometer and electron microscope. The center promises to cut
that verification time down by hiring staff whose only job is meteorite

Lauretta said it makes more sense for scientists to continue to partner
with dealers and hunters -- which they have done since the 19th century
-- rather than fight them.

''I don't think of them as my competition," Lauretta said, ''because
they're out there pounding the hot desert ground, making new
discoveries, when I don't have time to do that."

Once, meteorites were literally very hot rocks. After some 4.5 billion
years in space, most meteorites are lucky bits of asteroids that didn't
completely burn up as they whizzed through Earth's atmosphere. Their
minerals, metals, and trapped gases provide astronomers and geologists
with unique insights about our solar system.

Lauretta specializes in the study of primitive chondritic meteorites,
pieces of asteroids that have been floating around since the beginning
of the solar system and finally got captured by Earth's gravity. These
are ''the oldest rocks we have. They predate planet formation," he said.
''These give us a glimpse into the very first materials that formed the
solar nebula, this giant disk of dust and gas that surrounded the

Lunar meteorites provide rock from places on the moon not visited by the
Apollo missions.

Meteorites also provide the only bits of Mars found on Earth. A recent
NASA study of carbon found inside one of these martian rocks has
reopened the highly controversial debate over whether meteorites might
hold the residue of microbial life on the red planet.

Perhaps 30,000 meteorites have been identified worldwide, but only about
40 are from the moon and about 30 from Mars, probably blasted off the
surface by collisions with comets or asteroids.

In the Sahara Desert, nomads have developed a keen eye for meteorites
and a profitable trade with Moroccan merchants. Since 1995, Gold Basin,
the first big meteorite field found by prospectors in Arizona, has
yielded thousands of fragments from one asteroid that exploded in the
atmosphere 14,000 years ago. And since 2000, a spate of rare lunar
meteorites have been found in Oman in the Middle East -- but only some
of these have been available to researchers. And now the stream of finds
is slowing down.

''Around 2000 until 2003 there was a huge influx of meteorites from the
Sahara," said Anne Black, president of the International Meteorite
Collectors Association, ''but the supply is leveling off. We're at the
end of an amazing once-only gold rush."

They are ''not a renewable resource," said Harold Connelly, a meteorite
expert from the City University of New York, who was in Tucson to buy
rare meteorites for the collection at the American Museum of Natural
History. He believes that a major portion of the meteorites on Earth,
which took millions of years to accumulate, may be harvested in a few

Killgore said he hopes the new meteorite center will make that harvest
as fruitful for the scientists as it will be for the hunters and dealers.

In 1995, Killgore gave up his job as a plumber to become a meteorite
prospector. He now has one of the world's premier private collections,
including one lunar specimen valued at $8 million that he located with
the help of Bedouin nomads.

''I guess I'm one of the guys who's good at finding meteorites," he said.

But over the years he has also become deeply interested in meteorite
science. Instead of breaking his collection into tiny pieces for maximum
cash, he will put it on permanent loan to the Southwest Meteorite Center
and become the center's curator.

The new center also hopes to raise an endowment to purchase meteorite
collections, said Killgore. ''We're going to be able to purchase
material from collectors like myself. If they want to sell their
collection, it doesn't have to go one bit at a time. They can have the
whole collection sold at one place, and it will carry their name as a
legacy and it will be displayed."

''This is a scientific project that is seeking an open and constructive
relationship with the commercial meteorite community," Lauretta said.
''We can work together."
Received on Mon 27 Feb 2006 01:56:12 AM PST

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