Ebay and other Web sites pulse with hundreds of sales pitches. “The pieces below have an exceptional patina,” a site called Star-bits.comsaid of 10 pictured fragments.
The ads are for chunks of meteorites, bits of asteroids that have fallen from the sky and are as prized by scientists as they are by collectors. As more meteorites have been discovered in recent years, interest in them has flourished and an illegal sales market has boomed — much to the dismay of the people who want to study them and the countries that consider them national treasures.
“It’s a black market,” said Ralph P. Harvey, a geologist at Case Western Reserve University who directs the federal search for meteorites in Antarctica. “It’s as organized as any drug trade and just as illegal.”
The discovery of a rich and historically significant meteorite crater in southern Egypt, just north of the Sudanese border, has shown the voracious appetite for new fragments. Just as scientists appeared to be on the cusp of decrypting the evidence to solve an ancient puzzle, looters plundered the desolate site, and the political chaos in Egypt seems to ensure that the scientists will not be going back anytime soon.
The mystery began thousands of years ago with Egyptian hieroglyphs, which refer to the “iron of heaven.” Archaeologists have long debated whether the Egyptians made artifacts from iron meteorites that fell to Earth in fiery upheavals. The main evidence came from ancient knife blades of iron that had high concentrations of nickel — a rare element in the Earth’s crust that was considered a signature of extraterrestrial origin.
But doubts grew as investigators found terrestrial sites rich in nickel that ancient peoples could have mined. And scientists in Egypt never found an impact crater and a nearby lode of meteorites.
Then in June 2008, Vincenzo de Michele, an Italian mineralogist and former curator at the Natural History Museum of Milan who had explored the Egyptian desert for nearly two decades, was scanning the area on Google Earth when he saw something unusual.
He told Mario Di Martino of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Turin, and together they formed an expedition that surveyed the site in February 2009. To their delight, the desolate area bristled with iron meteorites — more than 5,000 of them — and they named the crater Gebel Kamil, after a nearby mountain.
The team members signed a note of discovery and put it in a bottle at the crater’s bottom. The find was a first. It was the only meteorite crater ever discovered in Egypt — its mouth 150 feet wide — and the team vowed to keep it confidential as long as possible.
But a return expedition in February 2010, found that the bottle had disappeared. The secret was out.
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Pleasing to think that even today someone can discover a field of 5,000 meteorites.
Pictured: A looted 60 gram fragment of the Kebel Gamil meteorite.
Unrelated but awesome: the triangular shadows of mountains.