Photograph by Matt McLoone for the Wall Street Journal
Published February 16, 2013
Michael Farmer is one of the world's only full-time meteorite hunters. Since the 1990s, the 40-year-old Tucson, Arizona, resident has been scouring the world for pieces of interstellar rock, racing to be the first one on the scene and selling his finds to museums and private collectors. On Friday, as Russians reportedly scrambled to collect fragments from a passing meteorite that injured hundreds, Farmer spoke with National Geographic about his unusual line of work.
Why are so many people in Russia busy gathering up meteorite fragments?
It's a historic event. This will be talked about forever. Everyone wants to have a little piece of it. And scientifically, we want to study it. We want to know what's out there, and we want to know how big it is, and we want to know what damage it can cause. The preliminary data from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says about 7,000 tons landed.
How many meteorite fragments are known to be on Earth?
There are a couple of hundred thousand known meteorites. Of course, there's millions and millions on the planet; we just have to find them. Most of the Earth is inhospitable—heavy forest, jungle, ocean. Meteorites that fall in the ocean are just gone, disappeared to the bottom.
How many other full-time meteorite hunters are there?
Dedicated, serious meteorite hunters? There are maybe 20 of us. If you add in the part-timers who go somewhere whenever [an impact is] close to them, then you might approach a hundred.
How did you become a meteorite hunter?
Here in Tucson right now we have the world's biggest mineral show going on. I bought a meteorite at this very same show 20 years ago, and I was absolutely obsessed and hooked. Since then I've been around the world more times than I can count—four million miles on American Airlines alone.
How many countries have you been to?
About 70 countries, by my last count. About 50, 59 trips to Africa—a lot of work in Africa. The Sahara and other deserts there make meteorites easier to find than on other terrains, and also keep them well preserved.
What are the challenges you face when you're on a hunt?
Well, you're usually going into a kind of chaotic scene where nobody really knows much. In Africa and other places I go [the locals] don't usually understand what's happening, and most of the time they don't care. They're more concerned with eating that day. But the instant some guy shows up and says, "I'll pay you to find this rock," the whole village empties—and then lots of rocks show up.
It can be dangerous work. I've been robbed, put into prison. For example, I was in prison two years ago in the Middle East, in Oman—actually sentenced, convicted, and put in prison for three months for "illegal mining activity." Not a very nice time. And the same year, 2011, in the fall I went to Kenya three times, after a major meteorite fell. On the third trip over I had a robbery where they ambushed us and almost murdered me. I was down on my knees, with a bag over my head and a machete on my throat and a gun at my head, being beaten. Luckily they decided to just take everything and leave instead of killing us. It's a dangerous line of work because it involves money, and people want that money.
What's the most valuable meteorite you've found?
Well, I've found three separate moon rocks in the Middle East. [Moon rocks are considered a type of meteorite that came loose from the lunar surface and fell to Earth.] And one of them I sold for $100,000 a week later. It was just a small piece—the size of a walnut. But the best meteorite I found was with my three partners up in Canada. It was actually discovered in 1931, but we went back to the location and discovered 53 kilograms [117 pounds] more. It's an extremely rare type of meteorite called a pallasite, and it's about 4.5 billion years old. We sold it to the Canadian government for just under a million dollars. Now it's in the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto, and it's considered a national treasure.
Where else do you sell your wares?
Well, I do shows around the world, in France, Germany, Japan. I go to expos, like this one here in Tucson, which is the biggest mineral show in the world and lasts for three weeks. And museums are always calling me.
It's a small market. It's not like I need a shop or anything. People call me or email me or go to my website and check it out. The market these days is so ravenous for anything new that when I get a new meteorite, it's usually sold in hours. I don't even have to work anymore. I just make phone calls to a few people, and it's all gone.
Where do you store your collection?
I have multiple storage sites—never put all your eggs in one basket. And I have lots of bulk material. Sometimes I buy this stuff by the ton, and it goes into storage and I sell it off one piece at a time.
What's the verification process like?
Any meteorite, anything that we want to have an official name, has to go to a laboratory, where it gets sectioned and studied by scientists. For example, I'd guess this meteorite in Russia yesterday will be in a lab in Moscow, being researched within hours.
In the collector market, we work collaboratively with the scientists. I supply them with rocks, and they supply me with data, both of which I need to make money. People want to know what something is before they buy it.
Are there legal or ethical implications to meteorite hunting?
There always are. Certain countries have passed laws. But when I was arrested in Oman, they actually had no law—they were just very upset that we were taking lots of meteorites. The only law they could charge us with was illegal mining operations—basically running a company in the country without government licensing. But I won on appeal because we had no mining equipment. We were picking up rocks off the surface of the desert. And a judge said, "If a child could do it, then it's not mining." And I was immediately released and sent home.
But there's always friction between the collecting market and the scientific market. There are scientists out there who believe that no meteorite should be in private hands. Well, I tell you, I've been on hunts all over the world and I've only run into scientists a couple of times. They don't have the time or money to do it. So if it wasn't for us, 99 percent of these meteorites would be lost to science.
What about this meteorite strike—do you think scientists will go to Russia?
I guarantee there'll be scientists from everywhere in the world going to this one.
Are you catching the next flight to Moscow?
Well, of course as a meteorite dealer, I want to own this. I woke up this morning to a hundred e-mails from people begging me to get on a plane and go get it so they can buy a piece.
But I'm probably not going. Getting into Russia can be complicated. I'll just buy some from the Russians when it comes out.
Of course, if this had happened in China or somewhere in Africa, I'd be packing my bags right now and getting on a plane, figuring it all out when I get there.
What is not mentioned in this article that people might find fascinating is the 1000's of hours that he has walked the ground looking for meteorites, in deserts, forests, cornfields, mountains, swamps and even downtown city streets in all temperatures in all types of extreme weather, everything from 105+ degrees F to pouring down rain. And there have been countless hours of searching with no results over several days. Generally speaking, they are very difficult to find but.
Latest From Nat Geo
A photographer explores the traces of a standoff that divided Europe for four decades.
Some jellyfish are known to migrate hundreds of feet in pursuit of prey. See some of our favorite jellyfish pictures in honor of Jellyfish Day.
The number of women in scientific research continues to lag behind the number of men, even though women make up half the nation's workforce. The question is, What difference does it make?
The Future of Food Series
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?