Saving space rocks

The University of Arizona Southwest Meteorite Center hopes to preserve a meteorite record for future generations.
By | Published: February 11, 2006 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Vesta Meteorite
This 1.4-pound (631-gram) space rock landed in Western Australia in 1960.
R. Kempton (New England Meteoritical Services)
February 11, 2006
Meteorites available for study are disappearing, figuratively and literally. Collecting space rocks is a popular and lucrative hobby. The science community can’t compete financially with commercial dealers purchasing meteorites. Dealers then slice these objects into small fragments for sale to the general public. Now, a scientist and meteorite collector have formed an unlikely union to save rare space rocks for educators and researchers.

Marvin Killgore, a prominent meteorite collector from Arizona, and Dante Lauretta, an assistant professor with the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL), have created the Southwest Meteorite Center (SWMC) in Tucson, Arizona. Their goal is to develop the world’s largest meteorite collection available for research and education through an “alternative marketing” and preservation strategy.

The organization will offer collectors fair-market value for meteorites, and collections will be retained in their names at the center. The SWMC will study and document each meteorite, and then enter the information into a database accessible to the public. This comprehensive registry will help buyers and dealers by providing the market with pricing and global inventory.

“By taking the characteristics of each meteorite and putting it into the database, we will be able to tell the dealer or finder that the UA [University of Arizona] center will pay this much per gram of the specimen,” says Killgore. “And after UA buys some, or all, of the meteorite for the public repository, everybody in the market will know just how much of the material is still left for sale.”

Beyond accessing a searchable database, researchers will be able to request samples for projects. “We will review all requests and promptly allocate material to reputable scientific labs,” Lauretta told Astronomy. “The public will be able to view the meteorites in a public exhibit and arrange for tours of the lab.”

Before the SWMC, no organization efficiently and quickly classified meteorites for collectors. Due to the workload of those who examine space rocks, analysis and classification typically took several months to process. The delay often led to frustration, and collectors and dealers would bypass researchers for classification or sale of their meteorites.

For its first year, LPL director Michael Drake will fund the center. After this period, the SWMC will be self-funded through donations. Killgore has loaned a portion of his collection to the center; it is valued around $5 million, weighs about 7,340 pounds (3,328 kilograms), and was acquired from nearly 900 sites.

Scientists study meteorites because space rocks serve as artifacts from the solar system’s evolution. These extraterrestrial stones, ranging from boulders to microscopic particles, possibly can provide clues to the origins of life.