The race to acquire meteorites

New Scientist (Laura Margottini)

THE bottle had gone and Mario Di Martino had a sick feeling that their secret was out. It was early 2010: he and his team were staring down into the Kamil crater in the Egyptian desert, miles from the nearest settlement.

Just a year before, Di Martino of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Turin, Italy, and colleagues had written their names on paper, placed it inside an empty bottle and thrown it into the crater. The reason? They were the first team to visit the site of a huge meteorite impact 5000 years ago. Few craters on Earth are so perfectly preserved. “We realised we were in front of a true rarity,” recalls Di Martino. The team’s analysis of the fragments they collected will appear in the 13 August issue of Science (see “Lunar crater here on Earth”).

Though the meteorites were still there, ominously the bottle had disappeared. “Unequivocally, somebody had entered the site,” says Di Martino. A few months later, samples of the Gebel Kamil meteorite – its official name – began to turn up at a market in France and online. The team was dismayed: the fragments disappearing into private hands meant vital information, such as the size of the meteorite that carved the crater, would be lost forever.

It is not the first time science has lost out to the burgeoning global trade in meteorites, which stretches from the bustling souks of Morocco to eBay. Meteorite researchers are racing private buyers to buy up these rare space rocks, and even helping dealers to identify fragments in exchange for samples. Yet participating in the trade helps to fuel it, and a small proportion of the meteorites for sale may have been snatched illegally from their country of origin. Should scientists collaborate with space rock vendors?

The global trade in meteorites has escalated in the last 20 years, largely because amateur hunters in North Africa have cottoned on to the fact that the rocks are there for the taking, because they are clearly visible on the bare desert surface (see map).

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