Meteorite hunters in the quest for space debris

Tan Weiyun
Tulga has been studying and tracking meteorites since he was 18. In January, he found a meteorite on his expedition to Qiangtang, a no-man's land on the northern Tibetan plateau.
Tan Weiyun

Outer space dumps a lot of debris on Earth. The US space agency estimates that about 44 tons of meteorite fragments fall on the planet every day. 

Most meteorites burn up entering the atmosphere, but some land in often remote places. It’s these fragments that fuel the fervor of treasure hunters obsessed with finding debris from outer space. 

One of them is a man who goes only by the name Tulga. He hails from the city of Altay in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwestern China, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together. His hometown is a rich hunting ground for meteorites.

In January during a winter holiday, Tulga found a meteorite on his eighth expedition to Qiangtang, a no-man’s land on the northern Tibetan plateau.

After more than a two-month delay due to the coronavirus outbreak, he managed to send the meteorite to the Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing for testing. Last month, he received an analysis of the rock.

The 10-kilogram specimen, according to the report, is mainly comprised of kamacite, an alloy of iron and nickel found on Earth only in meteorites, and taenite, a mineral found mostly in iron meteorites. Though the rock’s age is hard to judge, the report said it probably came from the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

To ascertain the meteorite’s actual age will require C-14 dating analysis of the soil, the carbonized plant remains and other rock samples near the site where it was found.

Space rocks are called “shrapnel fragments” because they resemble the twisted metal detritus of a bomb explosion. Tulga, 24, actually found two fragments of the same meteorite lying half a meter apart. “The two are actually one. It probably fell apart upon impact with earth,” he said.

Those fragments could have lain there thousands or even millions of years before Tulga stumbled across them. 

“Currently, I’ve no plans to name it,” he said. “Meteorites are always named for the places they were found. Once the rock is named, meteorite hunters will flock to the spot. I’m afraid that would disturb the local herders’ life and the beautiful natural scenery.”

Tulga is no novice to meteorite hunting. He has been studying and tracking rock debris from outer space since he was 18. His mentor is Zhang Bo of Shanghai, a foremost collector and researcher of meteorites in China. Zhang helped Tulga send the newly discovered space rock to Nanjing.

Altay, near the northwesternmost tip of China, is a popular hunting ground for meteorite enthusiasts. The area’s vast desert plains harbor one of the world’s biggest meteorite fields, and the city itself has a booming market in the trading of stones and minerals.

“Meteorites could fall on any part of the Earth,” Zhang said, “but it is much easier to find one in places like Xinjiang or Tibet due to the surface environment — large expanses of high desert where the naked eye can quickly survey rocks on the ground.”

With a metal detector, map and off-road vehicle, Zhang has been to Altay about 20 times. He was initially looking for meteorites related to the “Tear of Allah,” an 18-ton iron meteorite found in Altay by herdsmen in 1986. The rock remained there until government officials brought in heavy machinery in 2011 to haul it away.

Meteorite hunters in the quest for space debris
Ti Gong

One of the fragments of the meteorite Tulga found in Qiangtang

A major find

“Nine out of 10 times, you come up empty-handed,” Zhang said of his quests, though he did make a major find in 2016.

It was in Altay that Zhang met Tulga, a boy of Mongolian ethnicity, who kept offering him information on meteorites.

Experience and persistence are needed in the hunt, but a find often boils down to plain luck. It’s no exaggeration to say that a veteran hunter with advanced equipment might end up finding nothing for his whole lifetime. 

“It’s a little like buying a lottery ticket,” Zhang said.

Meteorite hunting has attracted an obsessive, if relatively small, following in the US and Europe for almost a century. It is only in the past 10 years or so that the pursuit has gained great popularity in China.

In 2012, a meteorite shower fell in Xining in the westernmost province of Qinghai, arousing a lot of public attention. Two years later, that interest intensified when the Winter Olympics in Sochi awarded medals made of meteorite rock to commemorate the superbolide meteor that exploded in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia. 

The Chelyabinsk meteor was a small asteroid about the size of a six-story building. The fireball’s flash in the sky was brighter than the sun and generated a shock wave that injured over 1,000 people and left a large number of fragments in and around the city.

A host of meteorite showers in Qinghai, Yunnan, Shaanxi and other Chinese provinces in more recent years has kept alive interest in hunting meteorites. The quest has been joined by astrophiles, collectors and traders in gemstones, jade ware and antiques.

“It’s expanded from no more than 10 people a decade ago to almost 200,000 today,” Zhang said.

In the process, an industry chain has developed — from upstream hunters who search for meteorites, to scientists who do lab tests and assays, to downstream collectors, and then to market traders who thread through all three and link them.

Part of the fun is the anticipation of possibly finding something that might help scientists understand the mysteries of the universe. But the bigger attraction is money. Meteorite hunting is a finders-keepers pursuit. 

Those lucky enough to come across a discovery usually wait for the highest bidder. The price for meteorite fragments can range from a little more than US$1 to over US$10,000 per gram, depending on the rarity of the piece.

“Of course, there are many counterfeiters who make money from faking meteorites,” said Zhang, who receives rock samples all the time from people seeking his appraisal. “I would say only 10 out of 1,000 rocks are real.” 

Just as a diamond is graded by its cut, color, clarity and carats, a meteorite is judged and priced by its scientific and ornamental values. Scientific classifications like weight, size, shape and discovery location figure into the pricing.

A meteorite that is actually witnessed by people falling to Earth generally has a higher value than one simply discovered in isolation on a ground search. But all in all, rarity is always the decisive factor.

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