“A stone cannot fall from the sky – there ARE no stones in the sky.” ~Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) “The Father of Modern Chemistry”
Have you been watching for meteors lately? How many did you see? Do you think any landed nearby?
The general public’s growing fascination with space and extraterrestrial objects is leading more people to go hunting for meteorites in hopes of finding one of those rare and out-of-this-world rock specimens. Meteorite collecting is popular with rock hounds as well as with amateur astronomers. These “space gems” are also important to scientists because they provide information about our solar system.
Most meteorites disintegrate in the earth’s atmosphere or fall into in one of the world’s oceans. Nevertheless, according to Carleton Moore, director of ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies, at least one meteorite has landed in every square mile of Arizona. He says that on average, two meteorites large enough to be visible touch down in the state every year. Since meteorites can last on the ground for a million years, this means there might be 2 million meteorites in Arizona!
Meteorites are usually a stone-like alloy of iron and nickel, and they may be large or small. Most are pebble-sized nuggets, irregular in shape. They are rarely round. Chunks of slag, pieces of old iron, and hunks of basalt are often mistaken for meteorites. How can you be sure if it’s a space rock or not?
First, keep your eyes open for rocks that stand out as being different from the others in their surroundings. Next, look for rocks that are especially heavy, solid, and smooth. Check for rust and signs of surface melting. A freshly fallen meteorite often has a dark outer crust. If you find a rock that attracts a magnet, it may be a meteorite. A strong magnet on a string will swing toward all meteorites, which makes this one of the best preliminary tests. Another excellent test is to try filing off a tiny corner to look at the inside. If shiny metal or silvery specks appear, and if your specimen also fits the other requirements, it’s a good bet that you’ve found a meteorite.
A great place to search for meteorites is in a flat dry lake bed. (The best spot to find meteorites is in Antarctica, where the black rocks stand out against the white ice!) If you are lucky enough to see a meteorite fall and can recover it, or if you happen to find one in the field, carefully note its location and take photographs if possible.
Glossary of Terms
FALL – A meteorite that was picked up after it was actually seen to fall.
FIND – A meteorite that was not seen to fall, but was discovered and picked up later.
A small number of meteorites are believed to have come from Mars. An asteroid impact may have thrown pieces of the red planet out into space, where they eventually fell to earth. One of these was discovered by meteorite-hunting scientists in an ice field in Antarctica in 1984, but it was only recently identified as being Martian in origin. In August of 1996, a team of scientists led by David McKay announced that they had identified organic compounds in this Martian meteorite. Further, they suggested that certain mineralogical features observed in the rock resembled microscopic fossils, and that they may be evidence of ancient Martian microorganisms.
Their research was published in Science, the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, the world’s largest general science organization. The news media immediately picked up on it and everyone was talking excitedly about life on Mars. It is important to note, however, that several contradictory studies have been published since the McKay paper. As a rule, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Consequently, there simply isn’t enough proof in this case.
The Meteorite Man
Robert Haag is a world-famous meteorite collector who lives in Tucson, AZ. With his boyish looks, long curly hair, sparkling smile and energetic personality, he has inspired almost every other meteorite dealer in the business. Although several new dealers have cropped up in recent years, Haag is still the largest source in the world for meteorites, and he is one of the few dealers who have been buying and selling meteorites for more than 20 years.
One of the very first “meteorite hunters,” Haag was also one of the first private citizens to obtain specimens from the Moon and Mars. He was once disliked by serious meteorite scholars who felt that meteorites should be saved for scientific research and not sold as commodities. So many of them were being shipped to Haag for sale by the local discoverers, that some countries even began outlawing exportation of these “national treasures.” However, Haag has generously donated and traded many rare meteorites to institutions and museums around the world.
Haag’s meteorite collection, one of the world’s largest, is stored in an air-conditioned vault beneath his home in Tucson, complete with massive steel door and combination lock. In his quest to expand his personal collection, Haag has traveled to dozens of countries including some of the most remote regions on Earth. He has mounted expeditions to the backcountry of Chile, Argentina, Namibia, Australia, Mexico, Egypt, and Siberia. A single report of a confirmed “fall” will send Haag to the site immediately, no matter where it is or what it takes to get him there.
Haag’s meteorite hunting expeditions resemble an Indiana Jones adventure! At times he has had to make his own roads and navigate by the stars. Haag often flies over an area in his paraplane to see if he can spot anything. He’s traipsed across African deserts and found meteorites he saw in dreams a night before. He’s been ripped off, set up, arrested and thrown into an Argentinean jail. Despite all of these occupational hazards, Haag loves his job and has been called “the P.T. Barnum of meteorites” for his enthusiasm. After all that excitement, what does Haag do for fun? He enjoys playing his guitar, boating and flying!
How Much is a Meteorite Worth?
Prices of meteorites vary tremendously based on the supply and demand for various types. According to one dealer, a common stony meteorite will sell for just a few dollars per gram. Small pieces, the size that would fit in the palm of your hand, sell for $50 to $100 per pound. Large samples, beautiful or sculptural specimens, and rare meteorites such as pieces of the moon or Mars, can reach hundreds of dollars per gram. Michael Casper of Ithaca, NY, a competitor of Haag’s who operates another one of the biggest meteorite dealerships in the world, said “I have one that weighs about a pound with a hole in it, which I paid over $10,000 for.” That was a bargain at just $22 per gram! Mars rocks can fetch up to $3,000 per gram in auctions!
The ASU Center for Meteorite Studies
Arizona State University has one of best collections of meteorites in the world. In fact, only the British Museum in London and the Smithsonian Museum have larger collections. The Center for Meteorite Studies, directed by Carleton Moore, has more than 1,400 samples representing about half of the observed landings worldwide. Their collection began with 600 meteorites donated to ASU in 1959 by the late meteoriticist H.H. Nininger. Most of the additions are also gifts from people. Meteorites in the collection range from pieces about the size of pebbles to a meteorite weighing over 800 pounds. Part of the meteorite collection is displayed on the first floor of the Physical Sciences Building, C-Wing, on the ASU campus in Tempe. For more information about meteorites and meteorite identification, write for the booklet “Have You Seen a Meteorite?” from the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies, Main Campus, P.O. Box 872504, Tempe AZ 85287-2504.
The Barringer Meteor Crater in Northern Arizona is the best-preserved meteorite impact site on Earth. It was created by a huge meteorite that struck there about 50,000 years ago. The meteorite exploded on impact, and fragments can still be found in the surrounding desert. The meteor crater is nearly a mile across and 600 feet deep. Arizona’s Meteor Crater so closely resembles craters on the moon that NASA used it as one of the official training sites for the Apollo astronauts. The new space museum with its educational exhibits, Astronaut Hall of Fame, Apollo space capsule, touchable 1,406-pound meteorite, and awe-inspiring view of the crater is a memorable experience for all ages. Learn more about it, take a virtual rim tour, and order items from their virtual store at www.meteorcrater.com. See also www.barringercrater.com, a highly informative site with historical and scientific info, an impact model, online meteorite game, interactive quiz, and links.
Did You Know…?
The Bible contains a possible reference to a meteorite! Acts 19:35 mentions an “image which fell down from Jupiter.” Apparently an object, perhaps a meteorite, had fallen from the sky near the town of Ephesus. The Ephesians thought it must be supernatural and they even worshiped it!
Meteor! by Patricia Polacco, 1996. (A meteorite that crash lands in Grandma and Grandpa’s yard sets off a chain of gossip and events that brings excitement to the whole town. Based on a true event in the author’s life, who still has a piece of that meteorite.)
Meteors and Meteorites: Voyagers from Space, by Patricia Lauber, 1989. (Learn about ancient collisions, a space object that hit Siberia in 1908, and raining rocks in Connecticut.)
http://meteorites.lpl.arizona.edu (Meteorites and Their Properties: an introduction to meteors for students and the general public, provided in English and Spanish versions, by David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona.)
www.lpl.arizona.edu/SIC/arizona_meteorites (Arizona Meteorites: a clickable meteorite map of Arizona, from the University of Arizona Space Imagery Center.)
www.meteorlab.com (New England Meteoritical Services: educational info, a history of meteoritics, an interactive quiz, and meteorites for sale. E-mail them for details about their student’s and educator’s sets which include meteorite samples and an introductory study guide.)
www.star-bits.com (How to identify meteorites, plus photos and description of a meteorite found in Holbrook, AZ.)
www.meteoriteimpact.com (Meteorite hunting in the American Southwest.)
www.novaspace.com/METEOR/Meteor.html (Meteorite types and classes, how to find meteorites, and interesting facts.)
www.uark.edu/campus-resources/metsoc/index1.htm (The Meteoritical Society: an international organization devoted to the study of meteorites; includes educational information and links.)
www.meteorite.com/dealer_list.htm (A list of hundreds of meteorite dealers worldwide, six of which are located right here in Arizona.)