Mars for Sale

You don't have to be a martian or even Bill Gates to own a piece of Mars. In a full-page ad in the New York Times today, a New York City-based company called The Sky Is Falling is offering 0.1-carat slivers of a Martian meteorite for $98 apiece: hundreds of times the price of gold.

This year's holiday science shopping story actually began on 3 October 1962, when an 18-kilogram meteorite slammed into Earth near Zagami Rock, Katsina Province, Nigeria, narrowly missing a farmer. Since then, the Zagami meteorite, made of basalt, has been carved into thousands of pieces and has been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers. Two years ago, researchers found compelling evidence that the rock came from Mars after matching the composition of trapped air bubbles to gasses in the martian atmosphere. Scientists think that a comet or asteroid slammed into Mars about 2.5 million years ago, flinging the rock into space.

Museums and research institutions own most of Zagami and the 11 other confirmed martian meteorites, says The Sky is Falling co-owner Darryl Pitt, curator of the Macovich Collection of Meteorites. Pitt says he acquired his stash of Zagami by bartering his personal meteorite collection to museums and buying some from another meteorite dealer. With every purchase, Pitt includes a certificate vouching for the meteorite's authenticity. The rock "is for smart, romantic people," Pitt pitches. "They can say, 'that's a piece of Mars on the coffee table.'"

Pitt says his wares don't harbor martian life forms--but just in case, they're encased in a block of resin in a sealed vial. Experts predict the Mars bits will sell like hot cakes. "People collect meteorites," said Martin Prinz, curator of meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which has also purchased meteorites from Pitt. "They seem to want a piece of something from outer space."