Numlock Sunday: Aylin Woodward on the fascinating meteorite economy
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Aylin Woodward, who wrote “A $25,000 Prize Still Sits in the Maine Woods. Meteorite Hunters Aren’t Giving Up.” for The Wall Street Journal. Here's what I wrote about it:
A $25,000 bounty was placed on a meteorite that fell somewhere in the vicinity of the Maine-Canada border, provided that the finder can obtain at least a kilogram of meteor, sending hunters scrambling through the wilderness to try to bag the find. They can be lucrative discoveries, with meteorites ranging in value from 50 cents to $5,000 a gram depending on rarity and type. When a rock is found, what happens is a hunter will bring it to an educational institution, they'll verify and classify it, they'll add it to the comprehensive database of 72,000 such space rocks called the Meteoritical Bulletin, the hunter donates a piece of the meteorite to the institution, and then it's happily on their way to market.
Aylin has a really compelling beat and is a fixture in the newsletter; she covers space and general science, and I was excited to hear all about this fascinating group of people.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a really fascinating story about a unique group of people who interact with the science community in a fascinating way. What got you interested in meteorites and the people who hunt them?
Do you want the honest answer?
Well, so this idea actually came from an editor at the Wall Street Journal, Jen Levitz. She flagged this wild treasure hunt in the woods of Maine, of people looking for a $25,000 piece of space rock. She was like, "This needs to be A-hed." A-heds at the Journal are these sort of weird, quirky stories that we can really flex our fun muscles with, that go on the front page every day, and so that was the genesis of this story.
That's fun. I think that the treasure hunt that you're kind of alluding to... You've talked a little bit about the economics of meteors in the story, and it seems like this one is a little bit of a high ticket for something of its size.
Yes, absolutely. We cut this quote, but one of our experts was like, "Sometimes these meteorite pieces are worth their weight in gold, as it were." Obviously, not every find or every sale is extremely lucrative, and yet there are a select group of people that have made this their sole profession. They put meteorite hunter and collector and seller on their tax forms and it's lucrative enough where they can buy a house.
Let's talk about this one in particular. A meteor crashed down somewhere in the vicinity of Maine and Canada and a local museum wants it. What's happening now?
In April, a piece of space rock fell near Waite, Maine, sort of near the Maine-Canadian border, deep, deep in logging country, 10 miles from the nearest service road entrance. The Maine Mineral and Gem Museum that's in Bethel, it's this tiny museum, very sort of doesn't catch your eye as you're driving by, but they have the world's largest collection of lunar and Martian meteorites.
When I talked to them about this, I was like, "Why would you offer $25,000 for a piece of space rock?" And they were like, "Well, it fell in our backyard. Of course we want it." Falls and recoveries in Maine are very rare. They're rare in general, but they're even rarer in-state and so they thought it would be more than worth the money to incentivize somebody finding this meteorite.
I get the vibe that these hunters operate with a unique mixture of art and science in order to find their quarries?
Yes. It is this very interesting, mutually beneficial relationship, symbiotic relationship. One of them described it where like, scientists don't have the time to leave their offices and track down falls and get on an airplane. Do they even have the money to do that? Probably not.
These meteorite hunters do and then when these meteorite hunters find a space rock, they need somebody to classify it. They need someone at an educational or academic institution to say, "Hey, we think this is a piece of the moon," or, "We think this is part of an asteroid from the asteroid belt in the center of our solar system." That classification, one, helps add the meteorite to our growing sample size of meteorites that can be studied for science, and then also tells the meteorite hunter what they can sell it for, because Martian and lunar meteorites are way more expensive than your average one from the asteroid belt.
But then again, there are some meteorites that, like, one hit a lady in her home, and that one was one of the most expensive meteorites ever sold. It's wild.
It seems like there's a robust economy for meteorites.
They explain to me that typically private collectors are their most common buyers, but then again, you see museums buy samples, you see educational institutions buy samples. Sometimes they're sold at auctions, and then a lot of it is like there's a robust eBay, Etsy marketplace for meteorites. Sometimes they'll go to mineral and gem shows and buy meteorite pieces and then resell them and stuff like that.
Even though obviously this story deals with the $25,000 prize, or one of the most expensive meteorites ever sold was tens of thousands of dollars per gram, your average meteorites sell from anywhere between 50 cents and a hundred bucks per gram. So it's a little bit more cost-effective for your average person who wants to own a piece of space.
You were talking a little bit earlier about how the educational institution that verifies it does get a percentage of the sale sometimes?
Correct. So in exchange for the classification, the meteorite hunter donates a portion of the find to that researcher's institution. There's a little bit of question whether or not that's 20 percent or 20 grams or the lesser thereof, but either way, the scientists explained to me that that donation is more than sufficient for them to do their scientific research.
I want to kind of back out a little bit because you have a really fascinating beat. You cover a lot of space stuff; you cover a lot of science in general. You had an A-heder earlier this year that I really, really enjoyed about Oreos, as well. I guess I would love to hear you talk a little bit about what the kind of stuff you cover is and what some of your favorite stories are.
Sure. So at the Journal, I'm the catchall person. We have a very excellent climate change reporter. We have an excellent biomed, genetics, scientific misconduct reporters, and I basically do everything else. I am the primary space science reporter, so everything science-related that NASA is doing, the European Space Agency is doing, like launches of new telescopes that look at dark energy and dark matter, but I also cover archeology and anthropology and paleoanthropology, so the study of our dead ancestors and their behavior in the fossil record.
One of my favorite stories of the year, there's some research published in June about Homo naledi, which is sort of this small-brained, small-statured human ancestor from South Africa, and there's plausible evidence that it may have been burying its dead and it may have been carving symbols on the walls of its cave system. So it really sparked this argument among anthropologists as to whether or not this evidence was valid or not sure, but also this idea that maybe you don't need a big brain to be doing some of these behaviors that we consider human or almost human or associated with our ancestors. So I also do that.
Then I cover physics, so I cover superconductors, weird particles, the particle accelerator at CERN. Yeah, I’m kind of the jack of all trades, I guess.
I really dig your beat. It seems like the space beat has been keeping you very busy these days. There's quite a bit of science going on right now, just week after week?
Yeah, totally. And it's only going to get worse. There are a couple of pretty cool missions that NASA is launching or are returning. NASA's launching a mission to Psyche, which is a metal asteroid. We're also going to get back samples from Osiris, which is a different asteroid. It's the first time the U.S. is getting samples back from a celestial body like that. So both of those will be really cool.
NASA is working on Mars sample return, so this endeavor to get parts of Mars back to Earth, it’s much harder than you would think, but yeah.
I had heard that that mission was in a little bit of trouble?
Yeah, Mars Sample Return is definitely, the budget is growing. It's started to pull money away from other missions in NASA Science Directorate. It's funny because people are like, "Well, we've brought back parts of the moon," but I'm like, "Have you watched the Martian? Matt Damon got stuck on Mars, because there's no ascent vehicle there that's easily reached."
You have the same problem where we have the Perseverance Rover that can collect these samples, and you have the Ingenuity Helicopter that can move them around, but then you have to figure out this robust mission infrastructure of sending something to Mars, putting something in orbit, sending something down, picking it up, and then getting it off planet, which is way more complicated than anything NASA has ever done.
Fascinating. And that comes at the same time that some of the political forces are trying to get people on the moon?
Those Artemis missions, they do fall under a different bucket within the NASA bureaucracy and infrastructure than these science missions do, but certainly NASA's kind of been the golden child lately. They were very successful with James Webb Telescope. The Artemis 1 mission did take off. They redirected an asteroid last fall. Republicans and Democrats seem to be able to agree that keeping NASA successful is a key priority, and yet I think that some of these other missions coming down the pike are going to be a little bit more beleaguered than these successful flagship missions from 2020 and 2021.
It's an exciting time. It's always a pleasure to see you in, whether it's the A-hed or whether it's just kind of your science beat, it's always fun. Where can folks find you and where can they find your work?
Just google wsj.com, Aylin Woodward. It's A-Y-L-I-N, Woodward. It's Aylin like an island without the D at the end. I'm Turkish, so it's an odd name, but you'll find me. I'm the only Aylin there.