Oct. 10, 2007 at 9:50 PM ET
|Meteorite hunter Michael Farmer kneels at the rim of a crater in Peru.|
It's a story worthy of an "Indiana Jones" sequel: Drawn by outlandish legends, a controversial collector journeys to Peru, purchases pieces of a rare meteorite under shady circumstances, then has to hightail it across the border to Bolivia with police in hot pursuit. Now the plot is nearing its resolution - and the finale could make another meteorite-size splash.
"It's been quite an interesting week for me," Michael Farmer told me today from his home in Arizona. "I did have to make my escape, that's for sure. ... Another day in the life of a meteorite hunter."
The tale began Sept. 15, when villagers in a remote corner of Peru said they saw a fireball falling to Earth, went out to investigate and spotted a huge crater partly filled with bubbling water. Some smelled an unpleasant odor, and fell ill with headaches and upset stomachs. Initial reports from the scene suggested that the cause of this all was a meteorite emitting hazardous fumes - and in response, authorities called a state of emergency.
When Farmer heard about all this, during a buying trip to Spain, he couldn't believe it. "Pure lunacy," he recalled. But in the days that followed, investigators confirmed the existence of a meteorite - though not the part about hundreds of people getting sick - so Farmer decided he'd better check out the scene.
After a stopover in Colombia to buy more meteorite specimens, Farmer dropped in on the Peruvian border town of Desaguadero on Sept. 29 and stopped at the police station to ask about the meteorite site. He said the police gave him directions - and sold him samples of the space rock. "Every one of them had pieces in their pockets," Farmer told me.
Soon afterward, he arrived at the site, talked with farmers in a nearby farming village called Carancas and bought still more samples. "We paid very good prices to them, and the people were very happy that we were there and helping them," Farmer said in his Web account of the expedition.
But the way Farmer tells it, at least some of the local police weren't happy with the $100 they were getting for pieces of the rock - and Farmer said he got the distinct impression that if he didn't pay more, he would find himself sitting in a Peruvian jail cell.
'A slight international incident'
The meteorite hunt was getting too hot, in Farmer's judgment. "We actually fled in a taxi to another border crossing and made it out OK," Farmer said. "It's turned into a slight international incident."
There are two sides to every story like this, and late last week Desaguadero's police chief denied that he sold Farmer any fragments of the meteorite. Chief Victor Anaya was quoted as saying Farmer's claims to that effect were "completely false," and he called for an investigation into the allegations.
"Now that the [crap] hit the fan, of course, they're denying that," Farmer said.
In the wake of Farmer's flight, some have branded him as an "opportunistic confrontational collector," a money-grubbing Yankee taking advantage of Peru's poor. The Peruvian newspaper La Republica compared the meteorite caper to the long-running flap over Machu Picchu artifacts, and bemoaned the "loss of national patrimony."
Farmer, meanwhile, bemoans the lack of scientific access to the meteorite's motherlode. Even Peruvian scientists say they have been turned away by the police guarding the site. And Farmer said it's only a matter of time before the crater fills in during the Andean region's rainy season. The more time the fragile rock spends buried in the mud, the less scientifically valuable it will become.
"I told them, 'For the love of God, dig up the meteorite,'" Farmer said.
Sneak preview of analysis
Is there really a meteorite down there? In the wake of the first reports, some experts speculated that the crater was merely a smelly hole in the ground that villagers came upon while they were looking for the cause of the fireball they saw. But Farmer said "there's zero question" that a space rock caused the crater - and based on the analysis conducted so far, the rock was a doozy.
"It's probably the largest chondrite meteorite to have fallen," Farmer said. He said the mass could be as much as 10 tons - which would be like a moving van falling from orbit.
"It will be talked about for many years in the meteorite world," Farmer predicted.
So why haven't we heard anything authoritative so far? Farmer attributed his information to meteorite experts at the University of Arizona who have been analyzing the samples he brought back last week, but those scientists are not yet ready to publicize their findings.
Harold Connolly, an expert who is based at Kingsborough College in New York as well as the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, told me he couldn't discuss the results until they get the stamp of approval from the Meteoritical Society. That may come next week, he said.
So we'll just have to stay tuned for that official verdict on the story. In the meantime, Farmer said he's already shipping out samples to scientists and collectors in the United States, Japan, Canada and elsewhere. And he's not the only one.
"We recovered over 700 grams of the meteorite," Farmer told me. "I know of about 7 kilograms in other private hands. And according to the locals, they estimate that 20 kilograms have been thrown out of the crater."
What's that smell?
One last mystery needs to be addressed: What about that smelly, sickening odor supposedly coming from the crater?
"It was extremely exaggerated. That's the first thing," said Farmer, who talked with numerous villagers about the event and even came across what he said was a picture of the smoke trail left behind by the fireball's fall. "I'm sure there was a heavy sulfur smell. That is not abnormal. Sulfur smells like rotten eggs, and that can make you physically sick."
Farmer guessed that 30 villagers were seen by doctors, not the hundreds initially claimed. He speculated that the fireball, the blast of mud (which damaged one of the houses in the village), the shaking ground and the sight of the crater added to the unease.
"It had to be absolutely terrifying," he said. "Somebody gets sick, and pretty soon everybody is terrified and gets sick. ... There was a very large part of mass hysteria there, which is understandable."
The strange case of the Peruvian fireball is an occurrence that those villagers will probably never forget - and that goes for Farmer as well.
"This has turned out to be an incredible event," he told me. "I've been doing meteorites for 13 years, and nothing even close to this has ever happened."