Meteorite hunters risk prison, even death, to find money in the sky – rare space rocks that are older than earth itself. By Chris Raymond

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 R450 000 sale. For his part, Ward found a watermelon size specimen, weighing nearly 45 kg, that could easily be worth R600 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 above ground 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 a hard time forcing himself to leave his Prescott, Arizona, 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 aircraft, 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 US meteorite hunter Robert Haag once said.

In this field, cosmic geology meets market economics. A common stony meteorite, called a chondrite, can sell for R250 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 297 g meteorite that originated on Mars fetched R940 000. A 1,8 kg lunar meteorite, the most expensive ever auctioned, sold for R3,3 million 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 fi ne minerals for New York City-based Heritage Auctions. “First, it’s the romance of having something not of the Earth. 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 theorise 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 characterise 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.” As the demand rises, he says, so too will prices.

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 US government would consider them stolen property. Museum people think it’s like stealing artefacts out of Egypt.”

Farmer donates some finds but is also a professional, and he 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, Arizona. 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 53 kg pallasite unearthed on a farm in Canada – was purchased by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for R6 million. Like every hunter, though, Farmer has had his share of disappointments.

On the patio behind the kitchen sits a brick-size stone he bought for R100 000. It’s what people in this field call a “meteorwrong” – that is, a worthless piece of terrestrial rock. “I keep it around as a reminder,” he says. “You’re not always right.”
Inside his home, meteorites recovered on a recent trip to Chelyabinsk, Russia, lie 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 Pyrex dishes.

He holds up one of his finds. “A few months ago, this sucker was out past Mars, and now it’s here,” he says. “Makes you feel insignificant.”

Despite his candid demeanour, 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.”

On the hunt
“This looks just like Oman,” Robert Ward says, eying the sea of sand that stretches out before us. Two nights earlier, a fireball appeared in the heavens above Arizona, so we’re riding a ribbon of highway in Ward’s black Ram pick-up in search of its remains.

A half-hour into the desert north of Winslow, we leave the asphalt for a dirt road. “I’ve had guns pulled on me, people shooting over my head,” Ward says. “And that’s just in this country.”

Ward is a hunter who cultivates partnerships with scientists. He is studying Doppler radar images of a meteorite’s descent assembled by Marc Fries of NASA. Using National Weather Service data, Fries plots the mass and velocity of the falling debris on a map.

“Marc tracks meteorites as they fall, then I hit the field to recover fragments,” Ward says. “This has brought a great increase of material from witnessed meteorite falls to science.” Technology only takes you so far, though.

The rest is footwork. Ward has a host of metal detectors, but to confirm the location of the strewn field, we will have to rely on hand examinations of promising rocks.  With the wind rustling our hair, we set out.

The ground is a patchwork of brown and red. It’s hard to say what exactly we’re hoping to find. Rocks that don’t belong here. What does that mean? We search for hours, but the fiery meteor that found its way to Earth this week remains elusive.

The excursion reveals the reality of meteorite hunting – it takes a great deal of patience and a good measure of faith. Most of the search time is quiet, boring, and far from being an Indiana Jones-style adventure. Many legendary finds come with stories of dedication rather than of danger. For example, people have been searching the hard-scrabble lands outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, for pieces of the Glorieta Mountain meteorite since the first pieces were found in 1884, but none has searched as relentlessly as Steve Schoner, who shuttled the 640 km between his Arizona home and the impact site at least 70_times, hunting for two weeks on each visit. Fifteen years of persistence paid off in 1997, when he uncovered a 20 kg Glorieta pallasite. A 50 x 50 mm slice of the meteorite fetches between R9 000 and R120 000.

Like gamblers hoping to hit it big, Ward and other meteorite hunters know the slim chances only improve with each hour in the field. “You learn a lot about odds and coincidences in this job,” Ward says.

Space-rock passion
A day later, during a tour of Ward’s Prescott home, I glimpse the allure that keeps these men dedicated to the hunt. Beneath a lofty ceiling just inside his front door stands a small herd of animals – taxidermy trophies from boyhood safaris with his father.

Butterflies hang in frames and fossils sit on shelves. He walks me to two rust-coloured doors on the far side of the room and inserts his finger in the biometric lock. The bolt gives way and Ward steps through the open door, turns to his left and punches a security code into the alarm system. The shade on the back window begins to rise, filling the dark room with sunlight.

“This is what keeps me going,” he says. Two massive boulders jut through the granite floor. Perched on their flanks are a dozen or more meteorites – each one the size of a watermelon. Against one wall are four display cases filled with stones. A fifth, next to the far wall, houses Moon rocks.

It’s a breath-taking display – a world-class natural science museum hidden just beyond the couch in his living room.

How to ID a meteorite
The rock you found in your back yard might be from space.

Location: According to the Meteoritical Society, authentic meteorites have been found in every US state except Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Novices, however, are better off hunting in the deserts of Arizona or the dry lake beds of Nevada, where the rocks can be seen with the naked eye.
Colour: Fresh falls have a black fusion crust. (Contrary to popular belief, they’re also cold to the touch.) In time, layers of rust give the rocks a reddish-brown patina.
Regmaglypts: These thumbprint-like depressions form on the surface of a meteor as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
Magnetism: Magnets react to the iron-nickel alloy common to most meteorites.
Weight: Because of their unusual density, meteorites can be up to 3,5 times heavier than Earth rocks of similar size.

For more information, consult the Field Guide to Meteors and Meteorites by O Richard Norton and Lawrence Chitwood.

- Additional reporting by Sarah Fecht