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The meteorite collector

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2014

A weight-loss doctor from Indiana owns a surprising number of the world’s known meteorites, including about 2/3s of an unusual Martian meteorite called Black Beauty, which is valued at more than $10,000 per gram.

There is one diva in particular that I’m here to pay homage to: Black Beauty, a shiny, scaly-skinned, 4.4-billion-year-old rock from Mars. It began its journey to Earth more than 5 million years ago, about the time humans and chimpanzees were splitting from a common ancestor. That is when an asteroid struck Mars, catapulting the rock into space. Sometime in the last thousand years or so, orbital mechanics and gravity delivered the wandering rock to Earth. Surviving an incendiary plunge through the atmosphere, it landed in more than a dozen pieces in the western Sahara. There the fragments sat, untouched except by wind and sand. Finally, a nomad plucked a piece from the dunes. After passing through the hands of several Moroccan middlemen, the first piece wound up in Piatek’s hands in 2011. He would acquire nine more.

Black Beauty has since set the collecting world on fire, reaching values of more than $10,000 per gram. (Gold trades for $40 per gram.) The price is in no small part due to the parade of scientific discoveries emerging from the rock’s jumbled-up guts. It is the oldest rock from Mars and chock-full of the planet’s primordial water. Most intriguing of all, it appears to be the first martian meteorite made of sediment, deposited by wind or water. That makes Black Beauty not only a cosmic blessing-sedimentary rocks are fragile and thought unlikely to survive interplanetary launches-but also a boon for astrobiologists. “If you’re going to look for life, you want a sedimentary rock,” says Munir Humayun, a meteoriticist at Florida State University in Tallahassee who led a study that last year pinpointed the rock’s age.