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Meteorite Hunting: Risky Business With Stratospheric Profits

Crowds of adventure seekers rushed to a sleepy provincial town of Santa Filomena after hundreds of chunks of a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite fell from the cloudless Brazilian sky in August 2020. Meteor fever seems to be conquering the world — every time a space rock arrives on our planet, hundreds and thousands of meteorite hunters rush to remote places in pursuit of tiny debris, that can bring them thousands of dollars. The hunters band with smugglers, break laws and risk their lives for the sake of having a piece of the cosmos in their pockets. So, what makes meteorite hunting so contagious?

Space and the extraterrestrial have fascinated humanity for as long as humans have had the gift of imagination. Spectacular views of comets and meteorites carving the night sky caught the breath of ancient people, who believed those fireballs to be signs from the supernatural forces ruling the world. The Greeks and Romans believed comets, meteors and meteor showers to be the heralds of significant events like the birth of a future emperor. Some Christians have argued that Bethlehem’s star that led the Magi to the newborn Jesus Christ was a comet. 

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Even in today’s rational and technologically advanced world, the rocks falling from space inspire awe among scientists and amateurs. After all, they were forged at the birth of the sun, and guard secrets about our solar system./Willgard via Pixabay

Space lottery

Meteorite hunters are professionals and amateurs who search for meteorites that have fallen on our planet and then sell them to scientists or collectors.

Space stones continuously bombard our planet. Most of them get lost in oceans or heavy forests. Nevertheless, plenty of debris from meteors is scattered across the accessible parts of the Earth. More than 40,000 meteorites have been found and catalogued so far, and many more are still waiting for the excited meteorite hunters.

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Los Angeles photographers Shawn Kaye, Scott Meadows and Steve Gentry set their cameras pointed to the stars during the Perseid meteor shower./REUTERS by Gene Blevins

When a meteorite falls somewhere in the world, hunters rush there to get as much debris as possible. When the “field mission” is over, the meteorites collected go to a laboratory — before going on the market, they need to be studied and categorised by scientists. The market price depends on the quality and rarity of the debris, which is impossible to assess in the field. So, it is in labs the real winners of the meteorite race are picked. They say that meteorite hunting is like a lottery.

Some of the stones might cost only a few cents per gram, while others go for thousands of dollars.

The six-digit price tags do not surprise anyone in the business. Some Chelyabinsk meteorite fragments were sold for more than $6,000 in 2013, a moonstone went under the hammer for $612,500 in 2018. And is this far from being the limit: in spring 2020, the British auction house Christie’s put a meteorite up for sale with the price tag of £2 million.

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A local resident shows fragments thought to be part of a meteorite collected in a snow covered field in the Yetkulski region outside the Urals city of Chelyabinsk./REUTERS by Andrei Romanov

A professional hunter

In college, Michel Farmer from Arizona dreamt of working for the CIA, but some years later found himself a full-time meteorite hunter. He snoops the world for fragments of space rocks and then sells spoils to museums and private collectors from around the world.

In an interview with National Geographic, he outlines the challenges meteorite hunters face in their quest for spacial stones.

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It can be dangerous work. I’ve been robbed, put into prison. For example, I was in prison two years ago in the Middle East, in Oman — actually sentenced, convicted, and put in prison for three months for “illegal mining activity.” Not a very nice time. And the same year, 2011, in the fall I went to Kenya three times after a major meteorite fell. On the third trip over, I had a robbery where they ambushed us and almost murdered me. I was on my knees, with a bag over my head and a machete at my throat, a gun at my head, being beaten. Luckily, they decided to just take everything and leave instead of killing us. It’s a dangerous line of work because it involves money, and people want that money.

Farmer plunged into meteorite hunting in the mid-1990s, and since then he has evaded chase, bargained with unsavoury characters, dealt with the police and criminals, and broke laws himself. After the fall of the meteorite in Chelyabinsk, Michael Farmer came to Russia and managed to take a few bits of debris out of the country. When asked about his Russian experience, he explained, “I prefer not to talk about my methods, or my Russian friends will rip my head off.”

Meteor Mecca

Two places in the world are holy to meteorite hunters — Africa and Arabia. Those are meteorite havens — space rocks are the easiest to find in deserts, where there is no rainfall to gradually destroy the stones or vegetation that hides them from the shrewd eye of a hunter.

In recent years, the Moroccan town of Erfoud, known as the gateway to the Sahara, has become a real meteor Mecca.

Almost 70 percent of locals search for and sell meteorites. Ordinary finds are immediately resold to visiting dealers and collectors, and the most valuable are transported to New York or Paris. Morocco has no laws regulating meteorite trade, so smugglers from Mauritania, Algeria and other North African countries rush to the space rock Mecca. Transactions are made anonymously — merchants don’t ask questions and prefer to remain ignorant concerning the stones’ origin.

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Marvin Kilgore, owner of the Fukang meteorite poses for photographs with the meteorite at Bonham's Auction house in New York./REUTERS by Mike Segar

By the early 2000s, many Moroccan Tuaregs were engaged in meteorite fishing, primarily serving as guides to foreign hunters. And apart from generating good profits, such a business seems to be bringing enlightenment and technology into Moroccan deserts: in recent decades nomads have been buying smartphones and learning to use the internet to keep in touch with their educated clients from around the globe.

Michel Farmer once met a group of Tuaregs in the Moroccan desert. They had pieces of a rare iron-nickel meteorite with inclusions of peridot. Farmer persuaded the Tuaregs to take him to the meteorite site despite their warnings. In the end, the nomads helped the meteorite hunter to get across the Moroccan-Algerian border, but it turned out to be only the first challenge. Michel had to escape through minefields and hide for several hours from Algerian soldiers in the back of a truck full of vegetables.

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Geoff Notkin, CEO of Aerolite Meteorites, Inc. poses with a lunar meteorite known as NWA 11789, unofficially known as "Buagaba" or "The Moon Puzzle", and comprised of six fragments that fit together, puzzle-like, ahead of the auction of the meteorite./REUTERS by Mike Segar

Michel Farmer is far from being lonely in his adventures. Hundreds of daredevils rush to dangerous places every year in pursuit of space rocks. Professionals agree the business is extremely exciting and satisfying, but it might also be hazardous.

“Those who prefer peace will never understand why we risk our heads for stones in museums and private collections,” he explained in New Scientist after being released from an Omani prison. “But those who don’t want to take risks are usually left with nothing.” So, if you are planning on doing some meteorite hunting, be well-prepared — the road to success might get a little rocky.