Inside the Strange World of the Meteorite Trade
Greg Brennecka on Owning a Piece of Mars
When it comes to collecting meteorites, there is no doubt which area is king: all hail Antarctica.
Since the first 1976–77 dedicated field season, the United States as well as other nations has sent teams every year to collect meteorites from the glaciers of Antarctica. The U.S.-led team, called ANSMET (for the ANtarctic Search for METeorites), generally takes between six to twelve volunteers to camp and search along the slopes of the Transantarctic Mountains. Each season lasts around six to seven weeks, with the weather largely dictating how much time is spent in a nine-square-foot tent, potentially wishing for a better companion for such tight quarters.
But when the weather cooperates, volunteers get to search the blue ice fields or glacial moraines on a snowmobile for primitive pieces of the Solar System for the betterment of science. Even more than the barrels upon barrels of extraterrestrial material recovered from the ice by these intrepid search parties, according to every ANSMET participant I’ve spoken to, the most memorable thing the group takes home after the field season are the fierce bonds of friendship born from battling and conquering the extreme environment of the Antarctic with their cohorts.
The amount of material that has been collected on trips to Antarctica over the last approximately 45 years is almost unfathomable. Collectively, teams from across the globe have found more extraterrestrial material in Antarctica than has been collected over recorded time, everywhere else combined. To date, well over 45,000 officially classified meteorites have been found in Antarctica.
But this insane number of meteorites was not collected by expeditions just looking around the ice randomly. Collection areas are chosen for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important is to look in areas where the downward flow of a glacier meets the base of a mountain. As it turns out, the glaciers of Antarctica are providing an incredible service to the meteorite community, acting as a giant (but slow) conveyer belt of meteorites.
Like anywhere on Earth, meteorites can and do land on top of glaciers. Since glaciers are giant rivers of ice slowly creeping downhill, any meteorite that lands on a glacier catches a free ride on the flowing ice. If a glacier runs into a mountain, the ice and all of its passengers pile up at its base. As this happens, dry Antarctic winds ablate the ice as it piles up, exposing the meteorites. When this process is continued over great spans of time, this results in far higher concentrations of meteorites at the base of the mountain than would be on any random stretch of ice, making the bases of the Transantarctic Mountains an absolute wonderland for meteorite collection.
While the meteorites collected during Antarctic expeditions are curated by NASA at the Johnson Space Center and are available for scientific study by request, most meteorites collected outside of Antarctica eventually are dumped into the free market at some point. Some of the less reputable dealers will immediately place stones up for sale as soon as they are found, either in a janky roadside rock and mineral shop or on the Internet. This can be a way to buy actual meteorites, but it can also be a way for the uninitiated to greatly overpay for a piece of concrete, iron slag, or petrified dog turd. On the other hand, reputable meteorite hunters and dealers routinely partner with academic institutions to officially classify new meteorites, meaning that once the stone is classified by an expert and some basic chemical and mineralogical measurements are taken, the stone and its designation are entered into the Meteoritical Bulletin Database maintained by the Meteoritical Society.
There are significant benefits to all parties with this arrangement: the dealer gets expert classification information to provide to potential buyers, and the classifying parties keep a portion of the sample in that institution’s collection for later study, as well as obtain information from the finder/dealer about where and how it was acquired—information that is generally lost if the meteorite is sold out of a wheelbarrow on the side of the road.
Regardless of how, where, or if a meteorite was classified, the goal of most dealers and hunters is to sell or trade the sample for something of value to them. You know, capitalism. Of course, these sales and trades happen at a variety of venues, large and small, on the Internet and in person, but by far, the most important place where meteorite deals are made is at the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in Tucson, Arizona.
Speaking from experience, the event is absolutely surreal, whether or not you are into rocks. The event is so large, it is not simply held at a convention center, but is spread out across the city of Tucson. Meteorite dealers in particular seem to try to avoid the main convention hall, where enormous mineral displays and spectacular fossils are the prime attractions. Instead, the space rock folks gravitate to hotels like the Days Inn, the Ramada, the Howard Johnson. And I don’t mean hotel lobbies or banquet halls, I mean the individual rooms. Many dealers routinely rent a room for the week and spread their merchandise across the floral patterns atop king- size beds. Potential buyers walk from room to room awkwardly navigating narrow passages searching for deals. It sounds shady as hell, but it would not be weird at this show for someone to spend $150,000 in the kitchenette of a Days Inn to legitimately purchase a piece of Mars.
From Impact: How Rocks from Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong by Greg Brennecka. Copyright © 2022 by GregBrennecka. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers.