Walk to the edge of town and then keep walking. There you’ll find a humble museum with a lot of heart. (Photos: Jo Piazza)
What’s a guy to do with millions of dollars worth of meteorites stored in a bunker deep below the desert?
Open a meteorite museum of course. And so that is exactly what Rodrigo Martinez after more than thirty years of collecting space junk from the Atacama desert in Northern Chile.
Martinez, a marine biologist by trade, discovered his first meteorite in the nearby Imilac crater in 1983 and he has been hooked on the hunt ever since. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, makes meteorite spotting easier than in most locations on the planet, due to both the climate and the fine red-and-brown sand which makes black space rocks particularly easy to see.
As he acquired a collection of meteorites, Martinez became something of an obsessive about the hobby and developed his own laboratory to analyze and classify the rocks as actual meteorites and not just black rocks misplaced in a sea of red.
Many of the meteorites are out in the open for visitors to handle.
Two years ago, Martinez constructed the Museo del Meteorito, a geodesic dome built on family land on the outskirts of downtown San Pedro de Atacama, about a 5-minute walk from the main drag of Caracoles. Signs for the museum are papered all over town and certain street corners are equipped with handmade rustic arrows pointing the visitor away from the adobe buildings and into the desert.
Follow them and you will arrive at the museo.
Martinez built everything himself, from the dome to the intricately detailed exhibits, many of which are more thorough than a meteorite exhibit you might find in a much fancier museum in a much fancier city.
“It was always a dream of mine to have a museum,” Martinez told me. “If we had more money, we would do a much bigger museum.”
It’s true, the museum is modest — really just a single room — but the exhibits are wildly informative and thorough.
Lest you think Martinez is something of a crackpot, let me tell you that there is actually some high-quality science happening here. Martinez promises all his meteorites are certified by NASA, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the French Centre Européen de Recherche et d’Enseignement des Géosciences de l’Environnement.
Today, Martinez claims to have more than $29 million in meteorites ready to be displayed, all of them from this region in Chile. Unlike most museums in the Northern hemisphere, visitors here can touch and handle the rocks.
Some of the larger pieces of rock weigh more than 30 kilograms. Martinez attaches magnets to them to show the composition of the metals.
There are guided tours in both Spanish and English and Martinez is often present to answer questions. He can tell you which rocks came from the mantle of a broken-down planet and which from the crust. He can even tell you about what happened when they hit the Earth, and give you an approximate estimation of when they arrived here.
The Atacama is littered with amateur astronomers ready and willing to show you some spectacular stars, but Martinez wants you to know that what he does is not astronomy.
The meteorites are grouped according to where they have been found and Martinez can decipher whether they came from a single planet.
“It is planetary geology,” he insists with a shy smile.
Intrepid space-junk seekers with some cash to spare can hire Martinez to take them out on a mission. He would be the first to tell you that you could go out into the desert on your own with a magnet and start a hunt for meteorites yourself, but there’s some comfort in bringing an expert along for the ride. The price is steep, just over $700 for one person, but it does include keeping any meteorites you may find. Martinez will cut the rocks with his specialized machinery and begin a preliminary study of its layers.
He tests the rock for nickel and ionizes the cut to look for conclusive evidence that you have discovered a meteorite. Martinez will then send it off to the proper authorities to be authenticated. That is a little harder for an amateur to do with just a map and a magnet.
Martinez and his wife run the museum together.