When you wish upon a star, you could make a fortune

Forget investing in diamonds. As Charles Arthur reports, the rocks to collect are from Mars
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The Independent Online
When you wish upon a star, you could make a fortune

Do you want to be a millionaire? Then go and buy yourself a light walking cane and a horseshoe magnet, join them together with some sticky tape, and visit your local travel agent.

Book a flight - the Australian Outback, the Chilean Andes, the Nile delta in Egypt, the Arizona desert. Congratulations: you are now a meteorite hunter.

All you need to do to make your fortune is find one - preferably big, and from Mars. You need the wide open spaces because those are the only place any "wild" meteorites are likely to be left nowadays.

The sandy topsoil means the magnet will pick them up - 99 per cent of all extraterrestrial rocks are principally composed of iron, with a bit of nickel. The cane will save you stooping down all the time to look at any that do stick to your stick.

It might take a long time: on average, amateurs find about pounds 1 worth of meteorite per hour. But the scoop is out there. Usually, the rock leaps from the ground onto the magnet with an audible "click".

They don't look like much: usually burnt black (from the heat of entering the atmosphere) and covered in a "crust" from their impact with the ground. It might seem absurd to suggest that a tiny lump of rock could be worth all that hassle. But don't doubt it. In the three weeks since scientists at the United States space agency, Nasa, announced that they thought they had found the remnants of prehistoric life in a Martian meteorite, the value of those dull-looking rocks has headed back towards their origin - way beyond the sky.

"It's incredible what people are prepared to pay," said Ron Farrell, who owns Bethany Sciences, a meteorite dealer. "We have had offers of $2m (pounds 1.28m) for not very large pieces of Martian meteorite - a few tens of grams in size." (A top-class diamond costs just pounds 10,000 per gram.) "A month ago they would have cost about $150,000 (pounds 96,000). It's a complete turnaround." And this is just the start, he reckons: "In the future, I can see these prices going into eight figures."

For the small band of people who make their living finding and dealing in meteorites, the past three weeks have been a delicious vindication of a pursuit that for decades had seemed like a refuge for people who found stamp-collecting too exciting.

"Things were healthy before, but we were selling at a much lower price," said Mr Farrell from his office in New Haven, Connecticut. "This has really focused attention on meteorites and brought prices up to where they should have been.

"The interest is from right across the board - educators, universities, various institutions like museums, and private collectors and corporations."

The latter have the financial clout to buy the rocks and then donate them to a suitably grateful museum, or modestly boast their extraterrestrial ambitions by displaying them in the headquarters foyer. Just as with the moon rocks in 1969, it is suddenly chic to own a little something that's out of this world.

There are plenty of them out there; the problem is getting them here in good condition. When our solar system was a few billion years younger, asteroid impacts knocked pieces off many of the planets, and even the moon; from there they have wandered through space, until after millions of years, they fall into the gravity well of the Earth, or another planet.

We are constantly being bombarded by rocks from outer space, but few survive the journey groundwards through our atmosphere, which they hit at about 16,000mph. The majority just burn up.

Some do survive, of course: lunar fragments have ben discovered in the desert of Western Australia. The Martian meteorite that so excited the Nasa scientists (and by proxy, the rest of the world) was discovered in Antarctica. Another fell in Egypt earlier this century (where it committed the first act of interplanetary "canicide", landing on a dog).

The dedicated meteorite hunters thus have something of an Indiana Jones air about them. The most famous among them is Robert Haag, 40, whose expertise has made him a millionaire. Based near Tucson, Arizona, he drives an open-topped silver Corvette with the numberplate "ROCKIT" and owns thousands of meteorites - among them a Martian specimen. Four years ago it had an estimated value of pounds 1.3m.

However, all is not sweetness and light in the world of rockhounds. Where there's cash, there's greed - and crime. Last month curators at the French Museum of Natural History in Paris found a display of two Martian meteorites, a moon rock and some Earth minerals disturbed. The Mars rocks were gone.

"They are tiny fragments, under a microscope in the display," said Claude Perron, the scientist in charge. "It must be a mad collector. I doubt that this guy is going to sell this. It's too difficult; it'd be like selling a Picasso or a Van Gogh."

He has faxed the world's meteorite dealers to tell them to look out. But his tone suggests he knows it has disappeared forever.