[meteorite-list] Everyone Wants a Piece of the Moon
Ron Baalke baalke at zagami.jpl.nasa.gov
Mon May 8 00:12:25 EDT 2006
Everyone wants a piece of the moon
By Eric Hand
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
May 7, 2006
Every day, people mail Washington University geochemist Randy Korotev
pictures and packages of rocks. They want him to say that their backyard
nuggets are from out of this world - and, gram for gram, worth more than
Korotev sifts meteorites from meteorwrongs, as he calls them. On his
popular Web site, he has some tough love for those who think their
"funny-looking" rock is a meteorite:
"You haven't found a meteorite," he writes. He adds, "Get real."
A meteor is an asteroid that lights up the sky - some chunk of the solar
system caught by Earth's gravity. Meteors become meteorites when they
make it to the ground.
Most burn up in the atmosphere, which is why scavengers are lucky to
stumble on one of the metallic, heavy lumps. Only 1,500 have been found
in the United States, a third of them in Texas and New Mexico.
But what the hunters really want is the 1-in-1,000 meteorite that's from
When asteroids hit the moon, the impact can eject rocks from the moon's
weak gravity field. Moon rocks that escape can end up spiraling toward
It wasn't until the discovery in 1979 of a lunar meteorite in Antarctica
that collectors could dream of possessing a piece. (NASA has closely
guarded the Apollo mission moon rocks.)
Since then, about 40 have been found, mostly in the deserts of Arabia
and Africa. Though wet climates break down moon rocks, Korotev is
convinced there are some to be found in the United States, maybe even
Market prices for moon rocks are $1,000 per gram. That's 50 times the
price of gold.
A closer look
In his office, Korotev shows what the fuss is about. He takes a sealed
container from a drawer and offers up the thin, thumbnail-sized piece of
the moon he paid $500 for.
It is dark gray, speckled with whitish flakes. He says he doesn't get
nervous when others handle it, but he quickly bags it and puts it away.
A different drawer is filled with the also-rans. Korotev rummaged
through the colorfully stamped packages from Pakistan, Algeria and
Brazil. One collector wrote from Poland with photos of two rocks he
hopefully named "Luna" and "Milky Way."
Korotev had to break the news to him: Two meteorwrongs don't make a
Usually, the diagnosis is obvious to Korotev. Meteorites don't have
layers or holes. They aren't spherical or rectangular. They don't
But sometimes, he needs more information. A few times a year, he sends
rocks to the University of Missouri research nuclear reactor for neutron
When they return, Korotev puts the radioactive samples in a tiny
lead-lined bunker, in front of a gamma ray detector. The signature tells
Korotev the elemental composition of the rock - and whether it's from Earth.
Of the hundreds of rocks he has assessed, not one was from the moon.
Only one - an iron- and nickel-rich stone from Egypt - turned out to be
a regular meteorite.
That hasn't stopped collectors from dreaming, said James Wittke, a
geochemist at Northern Arizona University.
"It's very difficult to convince people that, sadly, they don't have
anything. They think it'll put a kid through college," he said. Two
months ago, he stopped offering free assessments to the general public,
finding it too hard to keep up.
Tim Heitz, a meteorite collector and dealer in Fenton, says the market
depends on scientists like Korotev. Heitz recently returned from
Argentina, where he bought a 343-pound meteorite he hopes one day to
sell to the City Museum. Having the meteorite scientifically described
and classified increases its value, Heitz said.
Korotev gets something out of the deal, too. In order to be classified,
collectors have to give up 20 percent or 20 grams of the meteorite,
whichever is less, to a museum.
"It's a 'scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' sort of thing," Korotev said.
Scientists have achieved a better understanding of the moon's
composition with the extra samples, which came from all parts of the
moon. The Apollo mission rocks all came from one area with a particular
chemistry, Korotev said.
Worth its weight
Price per gram
Moon rock: $1,000
More information about the Meteorite-list mailing list