A Race to Claim a Piece of Space: The Out-of-This World Obsession of Meteorite Hunters

When word spread of a crater in Carancas, Peru — a tiny, remote village at 12,000 feet — the world’s scientists and meteorite enthusiasts were skeptical. The only way to know just what happened was to see it in person, and “there were only so many people in the world willing to head to the highlands of Peru at a moment’s notice to look for things that fell out of the sky.” In a Wired and Epic collaboration, Joshuah Bearman and Allison Keeley profile two professional meteorite hunters, Mike Farmer and Robert Ward, who travel to Carancas to see the crater for themselves — and recount what happens after they arrive.

After a day of poking around olive groves, the group retreated to their hotel. They’d said their goodnights when Farmer first saw the reports from Carancas. He called Ward. “Did you see what happened in Peru?” he asked. “Come down to the lobby.” It was midnight by then, but Ward hurried downstairs to huddle over Farmer’s computer and look at the images showing up on the meteorite forums. A crater in the middle of an empty plain. Photos of villagers posing with black rocks in their palms. And reports of witnesses falling ill, struck by some invisible ailment.

Farmer was skeptical; he thought it might be a hoax. The forums were full of theories: It was a spy satellite, it was volcanic, it was just a sinkhole. There were images of fragments, but they looked like chondrite, and that made no sense. Chondrites are among the most fragile of space rocks. They usually burn up or explode in the atmosphere. They also don’t make craters. Karl smoked and looked at the screen, uncertain. Ward was undaunted; he wanted to see it firsthand.

They knew they had to move fast. Speed is vital in the case of a witness fall—when a meteor is seen hitting the Earth—because rival groups will be vying for the same otherworldly prize. At times the competition includes a French father-son duo, a Russian team known for long hunts in places accessible only by helicopter, and a pair from Oregon who hunt with what they claim is a team of meteorite-sniffing dogs. It can be a shifty business, and distrust is common. Once, before they teamed up and were both hunting the same landfall in Kenya, Ward thought Farmer was having him followed—until he realized the tail was hired by someone else altogether.

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