Interplanetary Hit: A Piece of Mars Lands on Earth and Is Going to a Museum

Maybe we can’t go to Mars. But that does not mean that Mars can’t come to us.

Turns out a piece of Mars landed deep in the desert in Morocco. Bedouins who were leading camels through at the time saw what they first thought was a shooting star. Heading over to it, the found it was a glowing hot rock that, after awhile, began to cool off. They knew it was important, because it came out of the sky like that. They waited until it was cool enough, then put it in a saddlebag and shipped it to Rabat, then Paris and, ultimately, to New York. One of the nomads claimed ownership of the rock. It was finders keepers he said. But he did let others look at it, including some scientists in Paris. They identified it as Martian rock. It weighed about 2.5 pounds. It’s crumbly gray with veins of black running through it. It was named Tissint, after a small village that it landed near. They found through carbon dating it had solidified from a piece of magma 400 million years ago, but seems to have only been knocked off of Mars a million years ago. This is pretty recent times from the solar system’s point of view.

It turns out, there is a market for pieces of Mars that sometimes get through the atmosphere to fall to earth. The pieces are usually much smaller than this, and so far, scientists have identified only 61 such fallings from Mars. The going rate for a piece of Mars is about $1,000 per gram, so this thing is worth a great deal of money.

Various buyers came to see the rock in Paris. And as it turned out, the finder of it agreed to sell it to a museum so it wouldn’t be chipped into little pieces. Two collectors of Mars rocks, Darryl Pitt, a manager of jazz musicians and David Gheesling, a collector from Atlanta, agreed to broker the sale of the rock from the owner and send this person a six-figure advance to secure the purchase.

Daryl Pitt e-mailed the American Museum of Natural History in New York to see if they wanted it, but never got a response. He then contacted the Natural History Museum in London who agreed to take it, paying an undisclosed amount.

According to The New York Times, Pitt went to Kennedy Airport and picked up the piece of Mars when it came in. At first, after putting it in a backpack, he bicycled it to midtown where he tried to interest Comedy Central producers to put it on “The Colbert Report,” but they were suspicious of this offer and turned it away. After that, he went to his jazz club where he met up with Dr. Sara Russell and Dr. Caroline Smith, head of meteorites and cosmic mineralogy and curator of meteorites, respectively, of the London Museum, who then, by prearrangement, took it to the offices of The New York Times to show it to reporters, and after that out to Kennedy where it went through security as carry-on luggage and then off to London to where it is now.

An interesting question is—how does something weighing 2.5 pounds get off Mars? Did Mars cough it up or spit it out? Did something a million years ago strike that planet a glancing blow? Mars has an atmosphere too, so it must have been a mighty hit. And what was this thing doing for the past million years flying around in space before coming down to Morocco?

This also leads to the question of whether or not there are landing on Mars pieces of the Earth. I don’t know about you, but I never heard of stuff getting through the Earth’s atmosphere going outbound without jet propulsion. I do recall a report that during the very violent Hurricane of 1938, official papers from the Village of Westhampton Beach floated to a small town in New Hampshire. But that’s not Mars.

I’d like to think of maybe an empty beer can clattering down on the Martian desert, or maybe the front bumper from a Dodge Ram. There’s no predicting any of this stuff.

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