Meteorites land at collectors home
Friday, 07 June 2013 | Written by Doug Burkhardt |
It's already a collection that would put many science museums to shame, yet lifelong Hillsboro resident Rob Wesel is constantly looking for ways to expand the number of meteorites in his immaculate display case.
Wesel is a “meteorite broker,” which he described as “someone who buys, sells or trades meteorites.”
He's much more than just a broker, however. Wesel's home-based business, called Nakhla Dog Meteorites — a name that harkens back to a legendary meteor fall in Egypt in 1911 — reveals an enthusiast who has meticulously built his own collection while selling countless pieces to other collectors.
Wesel's search for meteorites has become a worldwide endeavour. Whenever a major meteor strike is reported anywhere around the globe, Wesel is eager to head there to try to locate fragments. His expeditions have taken him to obscure places, most recently he visited Chelyabinsk, Russia, site of a tremendous fireball in February.
|“The meteor was the size of a six-story building,” Wesel said. “It broke the sound barrier across six cities and was the largest meteorite event in the last 105 years. Nothing has laid down that kind of damage in a long time.”
The Chelyabinsk meteorite spawned a massive explosion that caused an estimated $33 million in damage. Windows were shattered across a wide area, some buildings were severely damaged and 1,100 people suffered injuries, mostly from being hit by broken glass.
Wesel wanted to head to Russia and hunt for pieces from the fireball, but because the ground was covered in snow, he bided his time and made his way to Russia in early May once it had thawed. He found a few pieces of the meteorite on his own, and bought more from local residents.
“After the blast, they went out in the snow and gathered pieces just as souvenirs,” Wesel said.
Wesel's passion for meteors took off in 1993 at an Oregon Museum of Science and Industry exhibit in Portland. He was shocked to see a display of meteorite pieces for sale.
“For $200, I could buy one of 1,000 pieces of a meteorite that had fallen in Africa,” he explained. “I had no idea anyone in the private world could own a piece of a meteor — I thought only museums like the Smithsonian could own them. Buying my first piece had me hooked.”
Wesel, now 42, pointed out that he has always been a science buff, even in his days at Glencoe High School.
“I was heavy into science, but I've barely scratched the surface,” he said.
A local organization that looks at meteorites from a purely scientific standpoint is the Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory (CML), headquartered at Portland State University. CML, formed in 2003, studies the composition of meteorites in an effort to unlock secrets to Earth's past — and possibly the future as well.
Melinda Hutson, one of CML's founders, admits she is focused so much on the science of meteorites that she cannot grasp the motivation of collectors like Wesel.
“I don't really understand the collector mentality. But people seem excited to own a piece of the moon, Mars, or an asteroid,” she said.
Hutson said she sees the science of meteorites as much more compelling.
“Iron meteorites give us information about the processes of core formation, and give us models for the composition of Earth's core. These in turn are inputs into models about the Earth's magnetic field,” Hutson explained. “How much water, carbon dioxide, organic material, etc., the Earth has today depends on how much it started with. Meteorites are the inputs to models that attempt to work with all of this.”
Wesel's obsession accelerated in 2003, when there was a meteor strike near Chicago.
“The area was pelted with hundreds of small meteorites, so I flew out there and did quite well acquiring them on my own,” Wesel explained.
Wesel learned to be creative and clever in the ways he gets his hands on meteorites, and the Chicago event was a case in point. He noticed a postal carrier walking his mail route in the immediate area of the meteor fall, and Wesel enlisted him in his search.
“I told him if he found any pieces [to] throw them in a bag and if they were meteorites, I'd buy them,” he said. “He found about two and a half pounds, and I was willing to pay him $10,000.”
It sounds like a lot to pay for what most people would regard as just a handful of rocks, but Wesel made it pay off.
“I sold them for $30,000,” he explained. “It seemed like a good idea to keep doing that.”
That financial success motivated Wesel to redouble his efforts.
“Any time there is a new fall, the price is really high,” he said. “I can't sell the stuff fast enough.”
Wesel sells to private customers as well as offering items on Facebook and eBay, but he concedes the market is not for the average consumer.
“It would be a hard sale for John Q. Public,” he explained, “to pony up $1,000 for a rock that isn't a diamond.”
While collectors seek pieces of the latest meteorite to hit the Earth, Hutson pointed to the devastation caused by the Chelyabinsk meteorite and sounded a warning.
“The recent fireball over Chelyabinsk was a wakeup call that relatively small objects can cause considerable damage,” Hutson said. “We were lucky the Chelyabinsk meteor was a fairly fragile stony meteorite, so it exploded into lots of pieces as opposed to being a sturdy iron meteorite. It could have done a lot more damage.”
Wesel joked about keeping his impressive collection near a window, so he could throw the rocks out the window in the event of a fire.
“If there is a fire, the kids are on their own,” he laughed. “I'll be getting the meteorites out.”