Meteorite hunters scour Southwest for space rocks

PHOENIX -- The sunshine sparkling on his meteorite-encrusted wedding ring and Van Halen blaring from his car stereo, Bob Haag rolled into Portales, N.M., looking for space rocks.

He had heard the news less than 24 hours earlier: Rare iron-rich stone meteorites had landed near the eastern New Mexico town. Armed with a pocket full of $100 bills and banking on another big score, the self-styled "long-haired hippy kid from Tucson" hit the road.

He was in town before the stones had time to cool.

This is the world of the meteorite hunter, where a handful of pros like Haag and legions of metal detector-toting amateurs comb the Southwest in search of celestial tidbits more valuable than gold.

"Without a doubt, I have the best job in the galaxy," Haag said. "But you don't have to be a rocket scientist. You do a little research, find where meteorites have fallen, and just go there and look. That's it. There's no magic."

'Today's new treasures'

In 25 years of hunting meteorites, Haag has followed "million-dollar falls," multiple meteorite drops that happen about every 1,000 days, to Egypt, Russia, Japan and more than 50 other countries.

He has built an extensive collection, which he said has been appraised at $25 million.

"These are pieces of stars that have never been seen on Earth before," Haag said. "It's so 2001 Space Odyssey, so Buck Rogers spaceman, so Marvin the Martian. These are today's new treasures, and we don't even have to leave the planet to get them."

During his search in Portales in 1998, Haag started working the residents immediately, handing out pictures of the meteorite and posting "Wanted!" posters at the town's barber shop and Wal-Mart promising a reward.

Soon, a crew of housewives, teen-agers and retired men were scouring the desert scrub behind their homes.

Haag shelled out about $15,000 for three of the 60 meteorites that were eventually recovered -- including $5,000 to a child on a bike. He guesses that the three rocks are worth at least twice what he paid, though he hasn't sold them.

A piece of an old puzzle

Most hunters agree there's more to the quest than money.

"The excitement with meteorites is that these samples are parts of planets that once existed somewhere in outer space," said David Kring, professor of planetary studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Meteorites are a piece of a very old puzzle -- 4 1/2 billion years of the solar system's history that can be partially unraveled by studying the meteorite you hold in your hand."

The dry, wide-open spaces of the Sonora, Chihuahua and Mohave deserts of the southwestern United States make for ideal meteorite hunting terrain. Would-be collectors just have to be able to recognize them.

About 800 baseball-sized or larger meteorites have fallen in Arizona alone in the past 300 years, but only about 40 have been recovered, Kring said.

He said he finds about one or two meteorites among the 600 rock samples brought to his office by amateur rock hunters each year.

Haag said he makes his money by simply being able to recognize the rocks better than his competitors. He plucked his most valuable find, a rare moon rock, from a pile of low-priced meteorites a collector was displaying at a gem show.

But while he often sells the gemlike meteorites he finds for hundreds of dollars per gram, some are off-limits.

A few years ago, Haag spent two months in a desert on the Libyan-Egyptian border hunting for a rare Howardite stone meteorite. One night, he said, he dreamed he saw the meteorite streaking through the sky and then bursting into five fiery pieces. Two days later he found five Howardite pieces lying neatly in the sand.

"This wasn't something to be bought or sold," he said. "This was something sent from heaven just for me."