Meteorite hunters risk prison and even death to find money from the sky, in the form of rare space rocks that are older than the Earth itself.
For 13 days in 2011 Michael Farmer and Robert Ward combed the southern desert of Oman, seeking treasure in the sands of Dhofar.
The pair were not on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula to hunt for gold, gems, or fossils. They were there for meteorites. Oman's untouched landscape, monotone taupe background, and arid climate make for ideal hunting conditions. The trip was proving to be particularly successful—Farmer claimed a find that had once rested on the moon. He knew a collector who would want it, so he called from the field to arrange a $45,000 sale. For his part, Ward found a watermelon-size specimen, weighing nearly 100 pounds, that could easily be worth $60,000.
Then, on the 14th day of the trip, the two Americans were stopped at a roadblock on a mountain pass near Adam. Omani soldiers armed with M16s pulled them from their vehicles and started rifling through their belongings. "When they found that big rock of Robert's, they really went nuts," Farmer says. "The next thing I knew we were handcuffed together and thrown in the back of a truck."
Ward and Farmer were taken in shackles to a military base, locked in solitary confinement, and interrogated around the clock. Weeks later the bewildered Americans were given a 15-minute trial, which took place entirely in Arabic, and convicted of illegal mining.
Oman has no clear law against meteorite hunting. For centuries it had overlooked the rocks. Now that those stones have great value on the world market, the authorities in Muscat have become fiercely protective. The International Meteorite Collectors Association has been trying to find out the nation's legal guidelines, to no avail.
Convicted of illegal mining, Farmer and Ward were sentenced to serve time with criminals from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt. The Americans could hear riots in other parts of the prison. Their ordeal would stretch on for 54 days, until a retrial freed them. (Their attorney successfully argued that plucking rocks from aboveground could not be considered mining.) The meteorites were confiscated, and the two Americans are now banned from entering Oman.
For weeks after returning from the Middle East, Ward had had a hard time forcing himself to leave his Prescott, Ariz., home and when he did drive somewhere, to step out of his car. Although he can't imagine having the courage to jump from an airplane, chasing meteorites in the world's wilds makes perfect sense to him. Would he pay for this passion with his life? "I'm sure I will," he says. "But the question is are you going to die sitting on the sofa or doing something interesting?"
Space For Sale
The specimens meteorite hunters collect—and occasionally risk their lives to obtain—are an increasingly treasured commodity. "Like money from the sky," famed U.S. meteorite hunter Robert Haag once said.
In this field, cosmic geology meets market economics. A common stony meteorite, called a chondrite, can sell for $25 or less, but a slice of iron–nickel pallasite laced with olivine crystals can easily fetch a thousand times that. The stories behind them also matter. A meteorite collected after a witness sees its fall brings gobs of money. Meteorites that strike objects—cars, tin roofs, mailboxes—push the prices higher.
Most meteorites originate between Mars and Jupiter, where a belt of asteroids has lingered for 4.5 billion years, since the solar system was young. No rock on Earth is as old as a meteorite—all terrestrial material has been ground, melted, and reformed by plate tectonics. Meteorites have other, less common, origins. Meteor impacts on the moon or Mars can eject surface material into space that ends up on Earth. Last year a 10.5-ounce meteorite that originated on Mars fetched $94,000. A 4-pound lunar meteorite, the most expensive ever auctioned, sold for $330,000 in 2012.
"As the public becomes aware that they can own these things, we are seeing more and more interest," says Jim Walker, director of fine minerals for New York City–based Heritage Auctions. "It's the romance of having something not of the Earth, first. Second, the oldest thing that you can lay your hands on is a meteorite."
Meteors (a meteor is not called a meteorite until it hits Earth) carry with them the secrets of the universe, clues not only to the dawn of our solar system, but, many believe, to the origins of life on this planet. Scientists theorize that meteors seeded Earth with organic molecules, enabling life to form.
And so, meteorites are coveted by museums, scientists, and private collectors. Auction houses entered the game in the mid-1990s, catering to clients such as Steven Spielberg, Nicolas Cage, and Yo-Yo Ma. Such celebrity involvement has driven up prices. Now the Internet has opened the field to even more people—some interested in science, others only in the investment.
"There are many meteorite hunters and collectors who actively collaborate, to help to characterize newly found meteorites," says Mike Zolensky, a NASA astromaterials curator. "There are also some problems. Many collectors will get a sample and tuck it away. Many meteorites are not known to science for that reason."
Full-time hunters, including Farmer and Ward, often donate a portion of their discoveries to university labs in return for help with authentication. Carl Agee, director of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico, says hunters play a central role for science, even if they have ulterior motives. "You have to put a lot of effort into searching for meteorites," he says. "When the hunters find them and ask us to help classify them, it benefits everybody."
Agee notes that researchers interested in microscopic analysis don't have to bid against high-dollar collectors, the way museums do. "We have plenty of meteorites that are small, perfect for research," he says. "In the past few decades display pieces have become much more popular. The more demand there is, prices will naturally increase."
Randy Korotev, who studies lunar meteorites at Washington University in St. Louis, says the rise in interest—and value—is not welcomed by everyone. "I have colleagues, particularly those associated with museums, who are irate about this," Korotev says. "I cannot buy meteorites from Oman or northwest Africa with my NASA grant money because the U.S. government would consider them stolen property. Museum people think it's like stealing artifacts out of Egypt."
Farmer donates some finds but is also a professional and is certainly in it for profit. And, as his peers readily admit, he's one of the best. A meteorite paid for his house in Tucson, Ariz. Another put solar panels on the roof. And a third earned him a trip to Bora Bora with his wife.
Like many others in the business, Farmer is both a meteorite hunter and a dealer. His most famous discovery—a 117-pound pallasite unearthed on a farm in Canada—was purchased by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for $600,000. Like every hunter, though, Farmer has had his share of disappointments. On the patio behind the kitchen sits a brick-size stone he purchased for $10,000. It's what people in this field call a meteorwrong—a worthless piece of terrestrial rock. "I keep it around," he says, "as a reminder. You're not always right."
Inside his home, meteorites recovered on a recent trip to Chelyabinsk, Russia, lay scattered across the glass top of the dining room table. Tiny ones—no larger than a grain of sea salt—dot paper towels. Others rest in glass vials. Walnut-size nuggets fill white cardboard cartons and wooden cigar boxes. Those waiting to be sorted sit in two glass Pyrex dishes. "A few months ago this sucker was out past Mars and now it's here," he says, holding up one of his finds. "Makes you feel insignificant."
Despite his candid demeanor, the nature of his work can be shadowy. He balks at describing how he transported all those rocks home from Chelyabinsk. "I use methods I'd prefer not to discuss," he says with a smile. "My Russian friends might behead me."