EDITORS NOTE: Killgore and Lauretta are available for interviews at the SWMC display and information room, Room 121, InnSuites Hotel (intersection of St. Mary’s Road and Granada Ave., Tucson)

The world’s meteorites are vanishing.

If something isn’t done soon, most of Earth’s rare space rocks could be gone in a lifetime.

This particularly alarms scientists who want to study meteorites — rocks from outer space ranging in size from microscopic particles to boulders weighing tons — because the extraterrestrial rocks can help them unlock the secrets of our solar system’s history and, possibly, the origins of life.

Part of the problem is that meteorites are being collected at a record pace. Specimens that have fallen over millions of years are being harvested in places like Africa’s Sahara Desert in a few decades. Commercial dealers are buying these space rocks at prices the scientific community can’t match and cutting them into small pieces for sale to bidders in a flooded market.

But it doesn’t have to end this way, say a meteorite collector and a university scientist. They are organizing a new center to save the irreplaceable solar system treasure for future generations.

“The whole point of what we’re doing is to prevent people from cutting every rare meteorite into tiny, little pieces,” said Marvin Killgore of Payson, Ariz., one of the world’s foremost private collectors of meteorites.

Killgore and Dante Lauretta, of The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL), have founded the UA Southwest Meteorite Center (SWMC), which will preserve the space rocks through an alternative marketing strategy designed to benefit meteorite collectors dealers and enthusiasts, while preserving the resource for scientists who need meteorites for research and educational activities.

SWMC will offer collectors, dealers, owners and amateur enthusiasts a fair price for part of the vanishing meteorite legacy. In some cases, this will allow collectors who’ve spent their lives cherishing meteorites to preserve their collections after they die. Their heirs can sell collections to SWMC at a fair price, and the collections will be preserved in their names.

SWMC will curate meteorites to the highest standards, Lauretta said. Staff will document each meteorite, adding the information to a comprehensive database that will be available to the public.

“By taking the characteristics of each meteorite and putting it into the database, we will be able to tell the dealer or finder that the UA center will pay this much per gram of the specimen,” Killgore said. “And after UA buys some, or all, of the meteorite for the public repository, everybody in the market will know just how much of the material is still left for sale.”

That benefits the seller because it’s easier to get top dollar for the rest of the meteorite when people know exactly what it is and how much of it is still on the market, Killgore explained. “What this center basically does is control the market situation and at the same time puts away some of the meteorite for future generations.”

Until now, there has been no organization that could rapidly and accurately classify meteorites for collectors. In the past, meteorite enthusiasts have waited months or years for their samples to be scientifically analyzed because researchers have been overloaded with too many meteorites to identify and classify. As a result, many frustrated collectors and dealers have sidestepped the scientific community when naming and distributing their specimens.

Lauretta and Killgore, who was recently named curator of meteorites at LPL, say the goal is to develop SWMC as a world-class meteorite repository that will house one of the world’s largest collections for research and public education.

Anyone who collects or owns meteorites can bring them to the new non-profit center for identification, classification, and possible sale.

Lauretta, SWMC director, and Killgore have started raising funds to acquire and preserve meteorites and are promoting the new center this week through the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. This annual event draws meteorite enthusiasts and other gem and mineral collectors from around the world.

Killgore, who has collected meteorites for the past 16 years, has loaned a significant part of his world-class collection to SWMC to jumpstart the center’s efforts. His collection is valued at about $5 million, weighs 3,328 kilograms (about 7,340 pounds), and comes from about 900 locations in 37 countries.

LPL Director Michael Drake provided initial, first-year funding to pay salaries and provide physical space in LPL’s Phoenix Mission Science Operation Center, 1415 N. Sixth Ave., Tucson. SWMC will become self-funding after a year, Drake said.

Donations to SWMC are tax deductible and will fund an endowment for purchasing meteorite specimens; support meteorite classification, analysis and curation; fund undergraduate and graduate student scholarships; and enable center staff to build a premier meteorite exhibit for research and public display.

Those who donate $500 or more will receive a limited edition gift that includes a sample of pallasite — one of the world’s rarest, most sought-after type of meteorite — suspended in acrylic. Pallasites account for only about one percent of all known meteorites. They are prized not just for the beauty of their gem-quality olivine, or peridot, captured in a nickel-iron matrix. The stony-iron meteorites are prized because they come from the core-mantle boundary of a disrupted minor planet in the ancient solar system.

Donations should be sent to: University of Arizona Foundation/SWMC, 1415 N. 6th Ave., Tucson, AZ 85705

Killgore and Lauretta started SWMC’s initial information and fund-raising activities this week to coincide with the 52nd Annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. SWMC events for the next two weeks include:

– Jan. 28 – Feb. 11 — SWMC displays, exhibits and information. Room 121 of the InnSuites Hotel, 475 N. Granada Ave.

– Feb. 4 — UA-sponsored talks on SWMC and how meteorites are classified and authenticated. VFW Hall, 1150 N. Beverly (north of Speedway, between Swan & Craycroft). At 6 p.m., prior to the Michael Blood Meteorite Auction. Speakers include Killgore, Lauretta, Linda Welzenbach, of the Smithsonian Institution, and Harold Connolly, of the New York Museum of Natural History.

– Feb. 9 – 12 ‹ SWMC information booth, with meteorite exhibits and displays. Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave., in the upstairs gallery.

– Meteorite raffle ‹ Raffle tickets for a 30-pound, iron meteorite are available for $10 each from SWMC staff.

For more information on SWMC, visit the center’s web site at http://www.lpl.arizona.edu/ or phone 520-626-5638.

Contact Information

Dante Lauretta 520-626-1138 lauretta@lpl.arizona.edu

Marvin Killgore 520-626-1294 killgore@lpl.arizona.edu

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