Bob's Martian Touchdown

The Russians launched Sputnik when I was in the first grade. This achievement made a big impression on a lot of people, and it also launched the "Space Race." I grew up being told by my parents that my generation was going to Mars, and I think they truly believed that, at least for a while. I know I did. Such notions may seem ludicrous in retrospect, but the post WWII bounties of technology and mass production during the 50's had been plentiful, and their promises for the rest of the century appeared very bright indeed.

Well, my parent's generation did make it to the moon, and in relatively short order, too.
I read a lot of science fiction novels while they were working on that.

Unfortunately, Mars turned out to be a lot more expensive adventure than my generation could afford, and somewhere along the line I realized I wasn't going to get a shot at any Martian rockhounding. Until I visited with Walt Radomsky (at left), webmaster of Lang's Fossils and Meteorites, at the Executive Inn during 1997 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, that is...

Lang's brought a variety of meteorites to the Show, and when I asked Walt if he had some "special" ones, he nonchalantly reached into several display cases and boxes and brought out three space rocks for my examination. All Martians.

Zagami (left)
Zagami, Katsina Province, Nigeria - Fell on October 3, 1962
Shergotty (center)
Shergotty, Gaya, Bihar, India - Fell on August 25, 1865
Nakhla (right aka "Spot Remover")
Nakhla, Abu Hommos, Alexandria, Egypt - Fell on June 28, 1911

Yep, that's my very own finger, finally touching a piece of Mars! I was allowed to caress them all with Walt's understanding and kind permission... Hi Mom!

I knew from my readings on ALH84001, the meteorite suspected of harboring microfossil evidence of Martian life, that only a dozen known meteorites were believed by the scientific community to be of Martian origin. However, I had no idea that significant amounts of Martian material was in the hands of private owners and meteorite dealers, and encountering these was a real surprise and educational experience for me. I guess I expected all the Mars rocks to be completely inaccessible to the public - locked away in airtight vaults in scientific labs, confiscated by various governments through self-bestowed rights of imminent domain. Needless to say, the moments I spent with these rocks were pretty special to me, and my hands trembled after the idea that I was actually holding pieces of Mars in them finally sank in. This is what they call "quality time." It was a good day at the Show.

On an October afternoon in 1962, the Zagami meteorite landed about 10 feet away from a farmer who was trying to chase crows from his corn field. He heard a tremendous explosion and was buffeted by a pressure wave. With a puff of smoke and a thud, the meteorite buried itself in a hole about 2 feet deep. Weighing about 18,000 grams (~40 pounds), the Zagami meteorite is the largest single individual Mars meteorite ever found. It is classified as an SNC shergottite. Zagami's immediate effect on the crows remains undocumented.

The Zagami was sent to the Kaduna Geological Survey and placed in a museum. Subsequently, Robert Haag, a Tucson meteorite dealer, traded for a large portion of it. The Zagami meteorite is the most "easily" obtainable Martian rock available to collectors. Lang's offered the slab of Zagami at $1000 per gram.

Shergotty was a witnessed fall, that was observed after detonations were heard. The 5000 gram (~11 pound) meteorite is classified as an SNC shergottite. Lang's was offering this approximately one gram chunk of it for $10,000 complete with an original 1903 Fletcher label from the British Museum. Gold is a rather pedestrian material compared to this stuff...

Nakhla's Attack

A deadly rain of 40 stones fell from the sky in 1911 near Nakhla in Egypt. The falls were preceded by the appearance of a cloud and detonations which frightened local residents. The stones ranged in size from 20g to 1813g, and it is estimated a total weight of 40 kg (~88 pounds) had fallen, the most of any known Martian meteorite. When I learned from Walt that the Nakhla fall hit and killed a rather unfortunate dog, I promptly renamed that specimen "Spot Remover"... Lang's was offering a 6 gram chunk of the kinetic assault weapon at $4000 per gram.

Nakhla is the signature meteorite for the nakhlite subgroup of the Martian meteorites, of which there are only two other meteorites in the same classification: the Lafayette, found in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, USA and which sat unrecognized in the geological collections in Purdue University for an unknown number of years until it was identified as extraterrestrial, and the Governador Valadares, which was reportedly found by a mineral hunter near the city of Governador Valadares in Brazil in 1958.

Lang's had specimens from many falls and finds, and I wasn't the only one interested in taking pictures of them. While I was there O. Richard and Dorothy S. Norton, author and illustrator of Rocks from Space - Meteorites and Meteorite Hunters, stopped by and photographed a number of Lang's specimens for a new, upcoming color edition of their 1994 book. Walt had previously recommended this 449 page tome as an ultimate meteorite collecting primer, and I purchased a copy which Richard and Dorothy autographed for me. It's a great book and I consider it twenty bucks well spent. ISBN 0-87842-302-8 Mountain Press Publishing Company

This book contains practical advice and information for the aspiring field collector. Still hunting...

Lang's had other meteorites besides the Martians that held plenty of interest. Shown at left is a "local" rock, a 2.7 kilogram (~6 pound) stony meteorite found by a Tucson resident near the vicinity of Kinney Road and Ajo Way in 1980 or so. The story on this one is that the late William Goldups was walking along a path that he frequented between his residence and a nearby convenience store when he observed a "new" rock that wasn't there the day before. This meteorite is considered a "find" rather than a "fall" because its descent wasn't actually eyewitnessed. However, chemical analysis of its crust indicated it had probably been found within 24 hours of its arrival.

At center is a section of the Gaudelupe y Caldo or "Dog Bowl" meteorite. Guess what this rock was doing duty as when it was recognized to be a meteorite? If you've ever owned a large dog who insisted on pushing his bowl all over the place as he ate, you can especially appreciate the utility of a nickel-iron meteorite in this application. Lang's was offering this aesthetic 835 gram section for $3200.

Backlit at right is a 390 gram slice of the 1,250 pound Esquel, Argentina pallasite - another of Tucson meteorite dealer Robert Haag's legendary globe-trotting acquisitions. Pallasites are the most common type of stony-iron meteorites, with 39 different specimens known. They are mixtures of crystalline olivine in a network of nickel-iron. Unshocked, gem quality crystals of olivine are occasionally found in pallasites. Lang's offered this specimen at $7500.

In case you've just developed a bad case of meteorite sticker shock, you'll be relieved to learn that although meteorites are the rarest rocks on Earth, not all of them are equally rare and expensive. In my own rock collection is this nicely sculpted Mundrabilla, a 216 gram iron meteorite belonging to the IAB complex found in 1966 on the Nullabor Plain in Western Australia. Mundrabilla was previously classified as a medium octahedrite. The total known weight of this fall is approximately 24,000 kilograms.

I purchased this 2.4" specimen for just under fifty cents per gram from a dealer at the Tucson Show a few years back. It was the first rock to coax a hundred bucks out of my wallet... I may have gotten more pleasure from handing, contemplating and showing off this particular rock than any other in my collection. Nickel-iron meteorites aren't particularly fragile, and unlike most of my crystals, I don't mind passing my meteorite specimen around. I particularly enjoy showing it to children and lying to them about how their generation is going to Mars. ;)

My other space rock is this cool lapel pin mounted specimen, a little iron about three quarters of an inch long. It was given to me as a token from a fellow meteorite appreciating rockhound with whom I had breakfast during the '97 Tucson Show. It was missing the pin clasp and he remarked he doubted he could get six bucks for it without the clasp. I gladly acquired a new clasp and made sure it has a secure bite on the pin. The locality of this meteorite's fall has been lost, but I know where it came from.

The Martian Meteorites
The Mars Missions

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Bob Keller