A small group of people manage to make money at a little-known job: meteorite hunting. They use metal detectors to comb the Southwest in search of bits of meteorite that are more valuable than gold.
?Without a doubt, I have the best job in the galaxy,? says Bob Haag. ?But you don?t have to be a rocket scientist. You do a little research, find where meteorites have fallen, and just go there and look. That?s it. There?s no magic.? He must be doing well, since he wears a meteorite-encrusted wedding ring.
In 25 years of hunting meteorites, Haag has followed multiple meteorite drops that happen about every 1,000 days. He?s gone to Egypt, Russia, Japan and more than 50 other countries. He has an extensive collection of the rocks, which he claims has been appraised at $25 million.
?These are pieces of stars that have never been seen on Earth before,? Haag says. ?These are today?s new treasures, and we don?t even have to leave the planet to get them.?
As part of his search for meteorites, he hands out photos and puts up ?Wanted? posters in barber shops and Wal-Marts, promising a reward. Soon, crews of housewives, teen-agers and retired men are scouring the desert scrub behind their homes.
Recently, Haag paid about $15,000 for three meteorites, including $5,000 to a child who brought one to him on a bike. He guesses that the three rocks are worth at least twice what he paid.
?The excitement with meteorites is that these samples are parts of planets that once existed somewhere in outer space,? says David Kring, professor of planetary studies at the University of Arizona. ?Meteorites are a piece of a very old puzzle – 4 1/2 billion years of the solar system?s history that can be partially unraveled by studying the meteorite you hold in your hand.?
The dry, wide-open spaces of the Sonora, Chihuahua and Mohave deserts of the Southwest are ideal meteorite hunting terrain. The problem is recognizing a meteorite when you see it. About 800 baseball-sized or larger meteorites have fallen in Arizona alone in the past 300 years, but only about 40 have been recovered, Kring says. He usually finds one or two meteorites among the 600 rock samples brought to his office by amateur rock hunters each year.
Jim Kriegh, a retired University of Arizona civil engineering professor, wasn?t even looking for meteorites when he made his big find. While hunting for gold in remote northwestern Arizona in 1995, he stumbled across a field filled with the scattered fragments of a huge rock that dropped out of its orbit between Jupiter and Mars about 15,000 years ago and exploded over the desert.
Over a period of two years, Kriegh and his partners have pulled more than 2,400 meteorite pieces from what has become known as the Gold Basin Strewn Field. One of only two such fields in Arizona, it is believed to be the oldest in the world outside of Antarctica. More than 5,000 meteorite pieces have been recovered in the area.
?It evokes all sorts of mysterious thoughts,? says Kriegh?s hunting partner, Twink Monrad. ?There were wooly mammoths and prehistoric lions and tigers and small horses in the area, and it just makes you wonder what they saw when this space rock exploded. It?s amazing.?
Monrad makes the seven-hour trip from her home near Tucson to Gold Basin a couple of times a month. In 1999, she discovered a separate meteorite lying in the strewn field, and named it the Golden Rule Meteorite after a nearby mountain peak. ?I firmly believe that if a person were to go over any square mile, time after time, anywhere in the world, they?d also eventually find meteorites,? she says.
Haag says he makes money by simply being able to recognize the rocks better than his competitors. He discovered his most valuable find, a rare moon rock, in a pile of low-priced meteorites a collector was displaying at a gem show.
A few years ago, Haag spent two months in a desert on the Libyan-Egyptian border hunting for a rare Howardite stone meteorite. One night he dreamed he saw the meteorite streaking through the sky and bursting into five fiery pieces. Two days later he found five Howardite pieces lying neatly in the sand. ?This wasn?t something to be bought or sold,? he says. ?This was something sent from heaven just for me.?
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