Meteors strike earth, and he strikes it rich

Prospector finds profit searching prairie for in-demand space rocks

October 28, 2007|By Nicholas Riccardi | Nicholas Riccardi,Los Angeles Times

HAVILAND, Kan. -- Steve Arnold is driving the yellow Hummer in circles around a Kiowa County wheat field, towing an 18-foot-wide metal detector. For an hour, nothing but silence.

Finally, the detector whines, and Arnold slams the brakes. "That is so good," he says.

Arnold jumps out, pinpoints the location with a smaller detector and starts digging. The renowned meteorite hunter is hoping for a big score. He has had three false hits today, unearthing a bit of barbed wire, a fragment of a plow, a squashed Dr Pepper can.

"What's the definition of insanity?" Arnold asks. "Doing the same thing over and over again."

Arnold has dodged police in Oman, seen his truck break down in a desert in Chile and bicycled the streets of suburban Chicago holding a broomstick with a magnet tied to its end - searching for space rock.

But it was here in Kansas that he found the meteorite that would make him famous.

In 2005, Arnold systemically began to search the meteorite-rich prairies of western Kansas. Within two weeks, he unearthed the world's biggest intact pallasite. Weighing 1,400 pounds, the pallasite - the most sought-after type of meteorite, composed of iron streaked with dazzling crystals - is believed to be worth between $600,000 and $1 million. It will be featured in the first all-meteorite auction, scheduled for today in New York.

The world of space rocks attracts all sorts. Professionals like Arnold comb the tundra of Siberia and Norway and the deserts of South America. Nomads in the Sahara search for rocks to sell to collectors looking for the perfect piece of intergalactic debris. Some collectors are drawn to meteorites for purely aesthetic reasons - the rocks can be startlingly colorful - but many are also captivated by the scientific novelty of the pieces.

"It's from outer space," said Darryl Pitt, who curates a major meteorite collection. Ten pieces from that collection also will be auctioned today. "There's a romantic notion of being able to have something from between Mars and Jupiter."

Arnold, 41, grew up in a small town in Eastern Kansas and knew nothing about meteorites. What he did know was that he wanted to be his own boss.

His parents operated their own businesses: his father, an accounting office; his stepmother, a bookstore. Arnold went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa because he liked its business program. He met and married his wife, Qynne, at the school, and after he graduated, pressure-cleaned houses in Tulsa to make ends meet. One day in 1992, he wandered into a Barnes & Noble and spotted a book on treasure hunting.

In a chapter on finding buried caches of coins on old homesteads, the book advised checking historical records to locate areas where epidemics or drought wiped out the population. Arnold went to the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka and began to thumb through newspapers. In the yellowing pages, he found stories about farmers digging up meteorites. "I realized - oh my God, these are treasure maps," Arnold said.

He began driving to rural communities in Kansas and offering to buy meteorites from farmers. Then he sold them to retailers or collectors. As the years passed, he spent less time acting as a middleman and more time hunting the rocks himself.

Meteorites are extraterrestrial debris from asteroids and comets that collide with the earth. As the rocks fall through the atmosphere, the heat and pressure can mold them into odd shapes. Some land with a huge impact, creating enormous holes such as the Barringer crater in northern Arizona, which is nearly a mile wide and more than 500 feet deep.

Treasure hunters like Arnold are generally on the prowl for meteorites that break up as they fall through the atmosphere and scatter across what is called a "strewn field." These are simplest to find in dry, flat places where the dark rocks are preserved and easy to spot, like the Great Plains or the basins of the American Southwest.

For years, Arnold's list of hunting grounds was topped by a less exotic place - western Kansas. Ten percent of the meteorites found in the United States have come from that region, which was showered with debris when a huge meteor broke up in the atmosphere thousands of years ago.

Homesteaders were the first to recognize the unusual richness of the land. Eliza Kimberly in the 1880s was convinced that the heavy rocks shattering her family's plows were meteorites and insisted on collecting them. She was proved right when she sold them to universities to pay off her mortgage. The homestead was promptly dubbed "the meteorite farm."

Other farmers continued to dig up meteorites occasionally in the stretch of Kiowa County near the meteorite farm, between Haviland and Greensburg. Prospectors swept through the area and discovered a half-ton pallasite that Greensburg displayed next to its other municipal treasure, the world's largest hand-dug well. The town lined the highway with signs advertising its display.

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