TUCSON, Ariz. — The rarest rocks on Earth are actually chunks of other planets, and Tucson's Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase is ground zero for the meteorite-obsessed.
Meteorites — space rocks that survived a fiery plummet through Earth's atmosphere — are the main attraction for an eclectic community of enthusiasts from around the world every February. It offers Tucsonans the opportunity to see the rarest of the rare and learn from the world's leading meteorite experts.
"The mineral show is a chance for people to see things before they go to the museums and things the museums can only dream of having," said Marvin Kilgore, curator of the meteorite collection at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
"You can find things at this mineral show you would just not see otherwise, period. It is as simple as that. This is just an amazing show."
Kilgore found his first meteorite in 1990. He still keeps the small nickel-iron rock in his pocket to remind himself of his humble beginnings as a collector. Since then, he has amassed more than 50,000 specimens from 46 countries. Each year, he adds to his collection at the mineral show. By the end of the month, he predicts, he will have an additional 1,000 pounds of space rock to sift through.
He said the show offers everything from million-dollar moon rocks that fit in the palm of a hand to colossal hunks of iron that made their way to Earth from the deepest reaches of the solar system.
The show does not cater solely to the high-dollar collector.
Kilgore said the average enthusiast can find space rocks costing $50 that an avid hunter will spend a lifetime looking for and never find. Most specimens will be much more expensive, but there are bargains for anyone with a mind to go out and explore, he said.
Blaine Reed, a 25-year veteran of the annual show, has set up shop in the Ramada Limited Motel. Every year, he said, he dreads that the place has gotten bigger furniture, taking up the precious space he has to display his collection of meteorites.
"Last year, if my main table had been a quarter-inch longer I couldn't have gotten it in the room," he said. Reed, who credits himself with finding Bolivia's first and only stone meteorite, specializes in specimens of high scientific value.
"People who have never been to one of these shows don't grasp the scope," he said. "I kick the door open about 10 a.m. and I'm open till about 7 p.m. until Feb. 12."
He said it costs him about $5,000 to set up shop, and he generally grosses about $50,000 by the end of the show.
Meteorites are valuable to scientists as well as collectors for a number of reasons. For starters, they are the only material on the planet that made its way here from outer space.
Geoff Notkin, one of Tucson's leading meteorite dealers and host of the Science Channel show "Meteorite Men," said the vast majority of meteorites originated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Their value reflects their rarity, he said.
"There is a popular statistic that all of the meteorites found in history are about a year's production of world gold," he said. "These are the most fascinating natural-history objects in existence. They are pieces of other worlds that have traveled here and hold clues to the origin of the solar system."
Notkin will be exhibiting some of the more spectacular space rocks his team found on "Meteorite Men" at the Hotel Tucson City Center at West Sixth Street and North Granada Avenue, and at Kino Stadium through Feb. 12.
He said he got into the meteorite trade through an early fascination with space, sparked by television shows such as "Dr. Who" and "Star Trek." Notkin and Kilgore described the art of hunting meteorites as an occupation involving painstaking research, tenacity and a good deal of luck.
"There is no rhyme or reason to where meteorites are," Kilgore said.
One of Kilgore's larger specimens is a 940-pound stony-iron pallasite meteorite he found in China. He said he traveled to northeastern China in the middle of winter to pick it up.
The hardest part was getting the big rock through customs. After proving the space rock wasn't some priceless sculpture or expensive gemstone, he persuaded the Chinese customs official to let him through — for a few hundred bucks.
He pointed out a small slice of the meteorite he had previously cut off. The polished surface was flecked with specks of gold-colored olivine crystals. He said the slice would cost about $25,000. He judged the entire rock to be worth $2 million to $10 million.
A meteorite's scientific value is far greater than its monetary worth, but many samples are bought and broken apart for resale as jewelry and artwork before they can be cataloged and studied, Kilgore said.
Kilgore and planetary lab associate professor Dante Lauretta founded the Southwest Meteorite Center in 2006 to make sure a large repository of meteorites exists for scientific study. The center allows scientists to study valuable meteorite samples free of charge.
He pointed to a small carbonaceous meteorite and said, "That has some of the oldest material man has ever touched"— more than 4.5 billion years old. "There is material in there that has never been subject to solar ray penetration," he said. "The deduction there is that it existed before the sun was ignited."
He pointed out another meteorite that fell in Australia in 1969. He said scientists have identified more than 80 amino acids in the space rock. "Those are the basic building blocks of life. This one has proved that organics can be produced outside of Earth's atmosphere," he said.
Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com