Interview: The meteorite hunters who make fortunes from space rock

Julian Gavaghan

For most people, meteorite showers – like the one in Russia last Friday that sparked a global media storm – are little more than a fleeting curiosity.

But to a few dozen professional meteorite hunters - like Briton Rob Elliott – finding tiny fragments of so-called "solar gold" can earn huge sums.

Elliott travels the world in search of fragments to buy and sell - and paid £51,000 for a 0.95g sliver of Australian Calcalong Creek lunar meteorite.

“Meteorites vary enormously in value – from just pennies to thousands,” Mr Elliott told Yahoo! News. “It can be very lucrative.”

Hunters for meteorites – debris from asteroids or comets that break up at they hit our atmosphere - have been compared to 19th century American prospectors in the "gold rush".

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Meteorites  typically fetch at least double the price of gold, which sells for a relatively modest £33 per gramme.

Fragments of the one that last week injured hundreds of people in Chelyabinsk – a city 900 miles east of Moscow – have been offered for as much a £6,500.

The most valuable samples are from historic meteorites, which may have struck the world thousands of years ago.

Modern-day prospectors range from local weekend hobbyists to globetrotting professionals earning millions of pounds a year.

There are also scientific collectors - notably members of the U.S. ANSMET institution- who trawl the Antarctic ice for meteorites to be researched.

The scientists rarely buy – as the boom is based on private collectors – but more often help traders by swapping surplus rocks for ones they need.

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Mr Elliot, 52, from Fife in Scotland, started out as a collector 20 years ago.

But, after realising how much money could be made, he quit his job as a Trident nuclear submarine electrical engineer and started trading meteorites.

Initially he simply bought and sold the stones.

But for over a decade now he has been scouring the world himself for the cosmic collectables.

“I’ve made some good discoveries in the deserts of Arizona, although, perhaps more surprisingly, I’ve also made big finds here in the UK.

“I have had some success in the strewn fields of Perthshire. And, a few years ago, I found an 18kg meteorite in North Yorkshire.”

Other prospectors, who have earned fame as well as cash, include American Steve Arnold, who found the world’s largest meteorite, weighing 650kg (1,430lb), in Kansas in 2005.

He and compatriot Geoff Notkin star in a reality TV show called Meteorite Men that airs on the Science Channel.

The vast majority of meteorite hunters, however, are amateurs – and, with hundreds of hits every year, there are plenty of discovery opportunities.

Moroccan locals last month found chunks of the planet Mars worth £300 per gramme after a meteor shower.

But most amateurs do not make anything like as much money from their finds.

“The problem is that local amateurs – and there are plenty of them in Russia because it is hard to get Russian visas – will be finding mostly ordinary rocks,” says Mr Elliott.

“They will also find it hard to sell to big collectors, who are wary about bogus finds.

“In this case, I think professional hunters will mostly become dealers and try and buy up genuine meteorites from locals and then sell them on.

“But that doesn’t mean some amateurs won’t get lucky.”