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Mining for Meteorites

As prices skyrocket, gonzo collectors are combing the globe for these celestial fragments—and riling researchers

It was the morning of June 13, 1998, when a 4.6-billion-year-old extraterrestrial object passed the moon's orbit, streaked into earth's atmosphere and blew to pieces in the sky somewhere in the neighborhood of Nelda Wallace's backyard. Wallace, a grandmotherly art teacher who lives just outside Portales, New Mexico, was the recipient of a meteorite fall.

Windfall might be more like it — for the rare extraterrestrial fragment, recovered after it hits earth, is now a sought-after and highly valuable commodity. Professional searchers will travel the world over, using any means possible — from satellites to simple theft — to acquire meteorites. The most valuable type, a dislodged piece of the moon, sells for $25,000 a gram — 2,500 times the price of gold.

Scientists, not surprisingly, are disturbed by these developments. Meteorites hold many secrets: far older than earth rocks, these intriguing chunks from space may preserve mineral compositions predating the planets. When collectors hack apart specimens to maximize the amount of product, and profit, researchers complain. "Science is threatened when a meteorite gets chopped up," says one geologist, "because you can't see what surrounded it."

Too often, such protests are going unheard among collectors. Within hours, Nelda Wallace's property was overrun by meteorite hounds. She had to run eight fellows off her land with some quite ungrandmotherly language. In the end, Wallace did make a tidy profit from the rock chunk that sizzled down into her dried-up patch of garden.

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