JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Every so often, on just one of those days, little bits of heaven crash into the Earth. They come from our own solar system, or millions of light-years away. Few of us are ever lucky enough to get our hands on one of these space rocks: lumpy, dark, gray - they have, after all, left heaven. But meteorite hunters love them anyway. And NPR's Lauren Silverman met up with one meteorite hunter and brings us this story.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Ruben Garcia's license plate makes him easy to spot on a sunny morning in Tucson, Arizona. Awesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SILVERMAN: It says meteors on it.
RUBEN GARCIA: Yeah, it does.
SILVERMAN: Our destination: an enormous dry lake bed a few hours south of the city. It's ideal for hunting meteorites.
GARCIA: A meteorite strikes the Earth about one per thousand years per square mile. The longer this dry lake bed has been here, exactly like this, the longer it's had time to accumulate meteorites.
SILVERMAN: The lake bed is a lunar landscape, about 50 square miles of flat dusty, cracked earth. In the distance, it looks like there's water, but it's only a mirage. Ruben starts to drive in small circles, leaving tracks in the dirt with his tires. What are you doing?
GARCIA: All right. Sometimes when you're out on a giant, dry lake bed, the best way to hunt meteorites is from the seat of your Jeep.
SILVERMAN: Here's how you do it. Drive around until you see a dark rock, pull up beside it and examine.
GARCIA: There's a black rock right here. And I'm just going to look and see real quick what it is. It's volcanic, and it's not a meteorite.
SILVERMAN: So we move on.
GARCIA: So we move on.
SILVERMAN: They fall whenever and wherever, but deserts preserve them well. Oceans and rainforests, those are meteorite graveyards.
GARCIA: Yeah. Here's a rock that looks interesting. The problem with this one is I can see quartz right away in it, and meteorites never have quartz.
SILVERMAN: What is the quartz? The shiny?
GARCIA: Yeah. Anything that you can see sort of sparkling. Meteorites don't sparkle.
SILVERMAN: We make it to the edge of the lake bed - a good place to find rocks - and hop out. Ruben is carrying a long golf club with a magnet glued to the bottom. He explains meteorites have a large percentage of nickel iron, and nickel iron will stick to a magnet.
GARCIA: So there's something that's stuck to my magnet that is not man-made iron.
SILVERMAN: Ruben will have to take a closer look at it later because a lot of regular rocks also stick to magnets. So how can you tell the trash from the treasure?
GARCIA: Does it have fusion crust? Does it have flow lines? Does it have regmyglyfs(ph)?
SILVERMAN: That's all just physical evidence on the rock it has been through our atmosphere. This is tough work. For over 20 years, Ruben has traveled to places in the middle of nowhere and studied flecks, specks and spots on thousands of rocks, all to find meteorites that are often the size of walnuts, and sometimes worth just as much.
GARCIA: If we find a meteorite out here today, and it's the size of a golf ball, and we really got aggressive marketing it, we might be able to buy lunch for all of us.
SILVERMAN: And we're talking fast-food, not an eight-course meal. So why does he do it? Well, for each walnut, there is a diamond. Every now and again, something so special will fall from the sky that everyone wants a piece of it. That's what happened last July when 15 pounds of rock fell to Earth from Mars.
DR. CAROLINE SMITH: This meteorite is absolutely brilliant. It's almost as if it was knocked off Mars yesterday.
SILVERMAN: That's Caroline Smith. She's meteorite curator at the Natural History Museum in London.
SMITH: It's so fresh and so pristine, it's arguably the most important meteorite to have landed in the last 100 years.
SILVERMAN: She got the biggest piece of the meteorite but is coy about how much it cost.
SMITH: I'm not going to give you numbers for that because we don't discuss the monetary value of meteorites.
SILVERMAN: Besides, Smith says the commercial value is irrelevant; the scientific value is far greater.
SMITH: Even though the diamond may look nicer, the fact that you're holding something from Mars and something so rare and so precious and so interesting beats diamond every time.
SILVERMAN: Ruben Garcia and I spent hours in the sun poking at rocks with golf clubs. And ultimately, we came up empty-handed. But this is what makes meteorite hunters feel connected to something bigger, something otherworldly.
GARCIA: I like to think that we play a big part in the whole space race. We give them extraterrestrial material to study where without meteorite hunters we would need a ship and a whole lot of fuel to go out and retrieve it.
SILVERMAN: Whether it's to study, display or just hold for a little while, who wouldn't want their very own piece of the stars? Lauren Silverman, NPR News.