Martian Meteorite For Sale Is A 'Little Time Capsule'

While NASA's robot is taking photos of Martian rocks, there are several pieces of the real thing on Earth. In 2011, an extremely rare event happened in Morocco — people observed a meteorite fall and recovered it before it was contaminated by water or organisms from Earth. Scientists now describe how it was made, and what it's made of. Now this weekend a piece of the asteroid is up for sale at a pricy auction house in Manhattan. Science and art have converged in a piece of Martian rock.

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And now to one more rare thing that came from space: a meteorite. Some of the most unusual and prized meteorites fell to Earth from Mars. In a new journal article, scientists describe the latest one that was discovered, and this weekend, you can buy a piece of it. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this story of a journey from Mars to a Manhattan auction house.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The meteorite is called Tissint, and it contains a unique story about Mars.

CAROLINE SMITH: Many people think that this meteorite may well be one of the most important meteorites that have actually fallen in the last century.

JOYCE: That's meteoriticist Caroline Smith at London's Museum of Natural History, which owns one of the biggest pieces of Tissint. She's one of the scientists who described it in the journal Science. Tissint's journey began as volcanic rock on the Martian surface. Smith says they can tell liquid washed over the rock and deposited bits of soil in it. Then an asteroid smacked into Mars and blasted the rock into space. In 2011, it flamed through the Earth's atmosphere and smashed into the Moroccan desert. Smith notes that while NASA's robot Curiosity is now driving around Mars, meteorite experts have the real thing.

SMITH: The thing is no matter how fantastic the robotic missions are, it's still not the same as being able to actually analyze a piece of rock in a laboratory on Earth. So the - I think the big message here is that the meteorite is almost ground-truthing what we're actually seeing on Mars.

JOYCE: Tissint is also special because the impact that blew it off Mars melted part of its surface into smooth, black glass. That trapped bubbles of Martian atmosphere and elements inside. Also, its fragments were found quickly, so it hasn't been too contaminated by elements on Earth. Scientists have just begun to tease out its story.

SMITH: Whenever I pick up a meteorite, I get excited. Each of those stones is a little time capsule and a little space probe to actually help us understand how our solar system formed.

JOYCE: But the piece in London is just one of many that broke off Tissint as it hurtled through Earth's atmosphere. Where they ended up is a story that begins in Morocco. Meteorite scientist Hasnaa Chennaoui Aoudjehane had heard about the fireball in the sky. Last January, she traveled 700 miles from Casablanca, over the Sahara, to find the strewn field where pieces were spread across the sand. She was not the first one there.

HASNAA CHENNAOUI AOUDJEHANE: The first thing that I see is hundreds of people in the middle of nowhere, and this is something that I will never forget.

JOYCE: Men, women and children were camped out, hunting for the pieces. Meteorites are often found in North Africa - unusual rocks stand out in the desert - and they bring a good price. She brought some small pieces for her university in Casablanca. Professional dealers scooped up the rest. About that time, a meteorite collector and dealer in New York City named Darryl Pitt got a tip about pieces of Mars for sale. Pitt got money from investors. A Moroccan dealer sold him a piece, dispatching his au pair to fly with it to New York City.

DARRYL PITT: Immediately after she clears customs, she reaches into her purse and gives me a packet, and I'm looking around, looking at the cameras and thinking, oh, my golly, this is going to be a problem.

JOYCE: Not that it was illegal, but the transaction made it look like it. Pitt bought or brokered the sale of more pieces, including the one that went to London's Natural History Museum.

PITT: It's important to make the material available to scientists and researchers first and foremost.

JOYCE: The museum's Caroline Smith agrees that collectors and scientists do help each other.

SMITH: I would be not telling the truth if I said there was no tension with anything where large amounts of money is involved, but I would like to stress that, you know, on the whole, relationships are very good. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement in many cases.

JOYCE: On Sunday, a piece of Tissint will be offered at a meteorite auction in Manhattan. Pitt helped Heritage Auctions arrange it. He says the Martian meteorites are the stars because there are so few. All told, on Earth...

PITT: You're talking about, like, about 300 pounds of material. That's it. Mars is among the rarest substances on Earth.

JOYCE: The Tissint fragment at the auction starts at $230,000. As for potential buyers...

PITT: Most anyone who has an appreciation for the exotic, the romantic, anyone who wants to enthrall a child or anyone's sense of wonder. Radio hosts?

(LAUGHTER)

PITT: Everyone.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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