Meteorite Collecting Is a Hobby

Here are a few reasons why meteorite collecting is a great hobby:

  • Everyone knows what meteorites are and it is the rare individual who is not intrigued
  • Meteorites are rare
  • Meteorites have interesting stories behind them
  • Meteorites are scientifically interesting
  • Meteorites are culturally interesting
  • Meteorites have always been collected and always will be collected.

    Is Meteorite Collecting Legal?

    Of course. Some scientists, museums and government bureaucrats, would discourage the hobby, but they are wrong. In the United States, meteorites are the property of the person upon whose land they fall or are found. If a meteorite is found on the federal lands, then government officials would consider it to belong to the government. (More about this later.) Still, if you find a meteorite on your land or buy a meteorite from someone who found a meteorite on his land, or collect a meteorite with permission of the landowner, or buy it from anyone who has a legal right to it, then the meteorite is yours.

    Some countries have laws that make it illegal to export meteorites. For example, Namibian officials claim that it is illegal to export Gibeon meteorites. Despite this official "ban" the truth is that the government recognizes that "small miners" are exporting quantities of this beautiful iron. Considering this situation, under American law, one's ownership should be secure--just don't take your specimen back to Namibia.

    The operators of the Canyon Diablo Meteor Crater seem to discourage meteorite ownership. They do not sell specimens (other than rust) at the Crater and the have a "big problem" with others who sell Canyon Diablo meteorites. But in actuality, the owners of the crater have profited handsomely in the past by selling Canyon Diablo meteorites. Many of the specimens now on display or for sale can be traced to them. In any event, their right to the crater is based on patented mining claims--i.e., that the meteorite was a "locatable mineral" under the Mining Law of 1872. Meteorite is not now a locatable mineral--was it in the past? I would not worry about the ownership of this most common of display specimens.

    With regard to the federal domain, the government claims that, no matter who finds a meteorite on public lands, under an interpretation of the 1906 "Antiquities Act" meteorites belong to the Smithsonian Institution. Not surprisingly, very few meteorites finds are recorded on federal lands. In practice, the government has taken a less strident approach than it might. It has chosen not to write the meteorite ownership "law" into the Code of Federal Regulations. It has in fact split meteorite finds with the finders. So if you own a meteorite from federal lands you need not assume that your ownership is in doubt.

    Meteorite collecting is legal. If your have a legal problem with a meteorite--or just know about one, then please send me an e-mail.

    Is Meteorite Collecting Respectable?

    Having determined that meteorite collecting is legal, one might ask if it is respectable. Meteorite collecting is a hobby of long standing, if not of universal repute. Some scientists who are engaged in meteorite research show disdain for private collectors and dealers. One author would brand non-scientists as "smugglers" while displaying an attitude little different than a treasure hunter in his own "scientific" endeavors. (See Hunting for Stars, by Michel Maurette) On the other hand, no one doubts that private collectors and dealers have made important contributions to the field of meteoritics.

    Harvey Nininger, one of the most important figures of modern meteoritics, was a biology teacher at a small midwestern college when the meteorite bug bit him. In subsequent years, he became the foremost collector of meteorites in America. He is responsible for the recovery of dozens of meteorites that might otherwise have been lost. Every person considering meteorite collecting as a hobby should read Nininger's autobiographical Find a Falling Star. (Try your library or order from Bethany Sciences.)

    Henry A. Ward, a mineral dealer from Rochester New York, was an early collector and dealer in meteorites. His collection efforts were responsible for the recovery of many meteorites. See from Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History by John G. Burke (University of California Press, 1986).

    How Do I Organize My Collection?

    Here are some suggestions:
  • By locality--use the Catalog of Meteorites to help.
  • By type. Use this table or those in other publications, e.g., Rocks from Space.
  • By country or continent.
  • Any other way.

    E-mail your suggestions for posting.

    How Does One Display a Collection?

    No question that a nice display can make a even a mediocre specimen look good. We have some suggestions in our display page.

    How Does One Slab and Etch Iron Meteorites?

    If one wants to see the Widmanstatten pattern in an iron meteorite, then you need to saw the specimen. Sometimes you can use an electric grinder to expose metal for etching, but be careful not to raise the temperature too much so the meteorite recrystalizes.

    Sawing iron meteorites is much more difficult than one might think. The crystalline metal is very tough and some meteorites contain minerals that are harder than normal metal working tools. If you try to cut a Canyon Diablo Meteorite with an ordinary hacksaw blade you will find that the blade quickly dulls because of the presence of the mineral schreibersite, which is very hard. You will have better luck with a blade embedded with silicon carbide. Iron meteorites are very hard on diamond blades of conventional lapidary saws. Some cutters use carbide blades. The best bet for cutting is probably to leave it to the professionals.

    Finishing or refinishing a cut surface can be easily done with a belt sander for coarser sanding and very fine wet-dry sandpaper (I use 1500 grit) for final finish.

    To etch a meteorite you can immerse the surface in a solution of 5% nitric acid and 95% alcohol. It usually takes one to five minutes to properly etch a surface. The amount of time is dependent on the meteorite, the potency of your solution (which will decrease as you etch), temperature, etc. Etching is a art that requires much experimenting and experience. Rocks From Space has an appendix that gives detailed instructions. I suggest that you use this or some other reference. But be prepared to takes some time to learn.

    Once you are satisfied with the etching immerse the meteorite in distilled water for a few minutes. The purpose of this step is to neutralize and dilute the nitric acid. If you leave acid in fractures in the meteorite, it will oxidize your meteorite. Next soak the meteorite in alcohol for at least 3 hours--two or three days would not be too long. The purpose of this step is to remove water from any cracks or imperfections in the surface. Next, heat the meteorite to 150 degrees Fahrenheit to remove any remaining alcohol or water. Immediately seal the cut surface as described below.

    How Does One Keep Meteorites From Rusting?

    Here are some suggestions. We invite readers to offer their own suggestions and experiences with various techniques.

  • Oil: Rough Iron specimens may be sprayed with WD-40 or similar oils. WD-40 evaporates so you will need to repeat this process every couple of months. If you want to remove the oil rinse your meteorite in acetone.

  • Etched surfaces are better protected by application of "Rig" grease--a rust-preventing grease for available in gun shops. Heat the meteorite to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and apply the Rig to the surface.

  • Wax: A nice finish on rough, tumbled, or etched surfaces may be obtained by dipping meteorites in melted paraffin. Heat the meteorite to 150 degrees and dip it in the melted wax. Let the excess drip off or shake it off. In some instances you may have to blot it off. Because the meteorite is hot the coating will be quite thin. This surface is esthetically pleasing and can be renewed by simply heating and re dipping the meteorite. (Note: While I describe this technique here, I am still experimenting with it. My specimens have not met the test of time--but they have not failed yet either.)

  • Lacquer: Perhaps the majority of people who finish meteorites to inhibit rust do so by using lacquer. This technique is described in an article in Meteorite! magazine. De-grease the surface of the meteorite with acetone, soak it in alcohol to remove water and spray on good quality lacquer. I do not like the lacquer coating as well as some others, but some people prefer it.

  • Containers and Desiccant: You might try putting your meteorite into a box and placing a silica gel desiccant packet in the box. Since you cannot tell how the desiccant is working, I would suggest combining this technique with something else. Joel Schiff of Meteorite! magazine reports poor luck with this technique in humid New Zealand.

    Can Anyone Find Meteorites?

    Here is an outline of natural principles that favor finding of meteorites. Meteorites will be found where:

  • The climate is conducive to preservation of meteorites. Dry climate, like that in the Atacama Desert of Chile, keeps minerals from oxidizing.
  • The surface of the land has been exposed for a very long time. The more time to catch meteorites the better--the Nullarbor Plain in Australia has been undisturbed for millions of years.
  • There is no vegetation to cover meteorites.
  • The color or texture of the land and rocks contrasts with meteorites. It is harder to find meteorites where the rocks are dark.
  • Other meteorites have been found in the area. This is particularly true where the known meteorite has broken apart in the atmosphere as most stony meteorites do.

    Here are some things you can to increase your chances of finding a meteorite:

  • Know what meteorites look like--you can start by looking at the pictures here pictures.
  • Use a metal detector--this works for iron meteorites and for most stony meteorites as well since these contain significant metallic iron.
  • Use a magnet to test prospective candidates--most meteorites are magnetic because of metallic iron.

    Send in your ideas. We will put them on the list (if we like them).

    Back to The Meteorite Market home page.