Wham! A piece of asteroid breaks off, hurtles through space, and collides with another celestial body. Through the last century, scientists knew of only a few hundred such planet-thumping lumps. Today, a new generation realizes meteorites are quite common—and profitable.
A meteor is a hunk of rocky, metallic material that detaches from a small body moving through space. It usually comes from an asteroid, comet, or meteoroid. If the “space rock” enters Earth’s atmosphere, it zips through, heating up on its plunge downward. It becomes a fireball, or shooting star. Once it lands, the object is officially called a meteorite. For meteorite hunters, the chase is on.
The psalmist says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the Moon and the stars, . . . what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4) Our wonderful God tends every particle and person in the universe—no hunting necessary.
Carrying a metal detector and a magnifying glass, Ali Lamghari roams the desert in Morocco. For a month at a time, he hunts meteorites. When he finds one, he fills out a data card, takes a picture, and records GPS coordinates. Lamghari takes his finds to the Museum of Meteorites at Ibn Zohr University in Morocco.
Professor Abderrahmane Ibhi founded the museum. It houses about 100 meteorites and recounts their history. Ibhi’s team conducts research and supports meteorite hunters. “We have been working with [meteorite hunters] since 2004, especially in the desert,” Ibhi says.
The museum receives samples from countries in North Africa and the Middle East. But most research focuses on Morocco, a meteorite hotspot. More than 50% of all meteorites in international museums and laboratories come from there.
An article in The New Scientist partly explains the phenomenon. Researchers say the arid environment preserves meteorites and that dark meteorites stand out against light sand. Researchers also believe Morocco’s nomad populace—people regularly moving through the desert—increases the prospect of finding them.
Since 2006, Ibhi has taught locals to identify meteorites. Now experts, many recognize features such as the blackish outside and other marks caused by a scorching, wind-whooshing space jaunt.
An entire industry—including brokers, dealers, nomads, and scientists—has sprung up around meteorite hunting. Large finds can mean big payouts. Some can be sold at hundreds of dollars per gram, the weight of a single paperclip. Tourists can book meteorite-hunting events, similar to safaris, but without harming animals.
Meteorite broker Mouloud Bachikh once found a 24-pound meteorite. Now he arranges deals between Moroccan nomads and other buyers. In a 2018 VICE News interview, Bachikh explained the growing meteorite trade: “The sky is raining gifts all the time.”