The story made headlines around the world – a meteorite crashes on the roof of an Indonesian peasant’s house and turns out to be worth millions, changing his life forever.
Wassht suggested the find was worth $ 1.8 million ($ 1.36 million), making the man a millionaire overnight – and if he was not, they debated whether he would have changed briefly by selling it to American buyers.
But none of that is true. The meteor is not worth millions, and no one has been torn.
This dream that came true is not as it first seemed.
A rock falls on a house …
Let’s go back to the current story – fairy tale or not, it’s fascinating. Josua Hutagalung, a coffin maker in a village in Sumatra, was taking care of his business in early August when he heard a noise from above and – seconds later – a loud bang coming from his home.
At first, Joshua was too scared to see what it was: the unknown object had come through his roof with such speed and force that it was cut into the metal roof and buried itself 15cm (6ins) deep in the ground floor.
He eventually opened a strange little stone weighing about 2 kg (4.4 b).
“When I raised it, it was still warm,” he told the BBC’s Indonesian service. “That was when I thought the object I was raising was a meteor from the sky. It was impossible for anyone to throw such a big rock on the roof of the house.”
It is not every day that a rock from space falls through your roof, so Joshua posted exciting discovery pictures on Facebook. And the news began to travel, beyond his village, through Sumatra and Indonesia before it reached international ears.
Meteorites are essentially ancient rocks that have been trampled across space and – by a pure case – fall to the ground.
Surprisingly, there is scientific interest in them. Questions range from where they come from to what they are made of and what they can tell us about the universe.
Added to this is the interest of collectors. Meteorites are more than four billion years old – older than our planet – so it’s easy to see the fascination they carry.
And it was these collectors who became interested in Joshua stone, eager to buy it. But in August, global travel was shut down just because of Covid and getting on a fast flight to Indonesia was impossible.
That’s when some potential buyers in the U.S. contacted another meteorite enthusiast Jared Collins, an American living in Indonesia, and asked if he could help.
He did it in Sumatra, met Joshua and inspected the stone for certification and to make sure it was properly preserved. Contact with water, for example, would quickly damage the meteor.
“It’s incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to keep something that is a genuine, physical remnant of the early stages of our solar system,” the American told the BBC this week.
“I immediately noticed its distinctive black interior and a thin, light brown exterior entrance, which was created as it traveled through the atmosphere.
“He also had a very unique smell which is hard to explain in words.”
Once the buyer in the US agreed with Joshua on a price, the meteorite was sold, with Jared as intermediary.
Both sides stress that the undisclosed amount was fair and that no one was cheated in the deal. However, it was nowhere near the figure that began to appear in titles all over the world – not even close.
A potential gold mine
So where did the $ 1.8 million price come from? It’s a mix of a promising salesperson and some amateur math.
In addition to a large rock of about 2 kg, there were some smaller pieces of meteorite that were found near Joshua’s house. Some of them were also sold and two of them ended up on Ebay in the US
Required prices are $ 285 for 0.3 g and $ 29,120 for 33.68 g. If you expect it, it equates to about $ 860 per gram. Multiplied by the weight of the large stone, you reach $ 1.8 million.
“When I read that picture, I had to laugh,” Laurence Garvie, a research professor at the Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Research, told the BBC. An international authority on the ground, he was able to inspect parts of the Sumatra meteorite and made the official classification for him.
“I’ve seen this story so many times before,” he adds. “Someone finds a meteorite and they look at Ebay and think it’s worth millions because they see small fragments sold for a large quantity.”
‘An extraterrestrial lie’
But it just doesn’t work that way.
“People are fascinated by owning something that is older than the Earth, something that comes from space,” explains Prof Garvie. “So you can have people willing to pay a few hundred or a thousand dollars for a small piece. But no one would pay millions for a bigger stone.”
In fact, the price usually goes down as the piece size increases.
He also suspects someone would buy the parts offered on Ebay for the asking price. Experts expect them to get maybe half.
So if the market value of a meteor is almost impossible to determine, then what is the actual value of the rock from Sumatra? The Arizona professor says it is about 70-80% clay, essentially “an extra-terrestrial lie.”
“It ‘s dominated by a little iron, oxygen, magnesium, aluminum and calcium – it’ s probably worth a dollar, two if I’m generous.”
He thinks it may have been about a meter hooked when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The fracture at the entrance, only a few pieces would have reached the ground – one of which crashed through the roof of Josua Hutagalung’s house.
The building blocks of early life
The only thing that is certain about meteors is the scientific value of such findings.
The meteorite found in Sumatra is a carbon chondrite, “the remnants of the early solar system provide a window back in time to events that occurred before the formation of the planet,” Jason Scott Herrin, of the Singapore Earth Observatory, told the BBC.
While they contain organic compounds and have collided with Earth since the beginning of our planet, meteorites “may have brought with them the building blocks of early life,” he explains. “They are the highest in non-terrestrial amino acids of any meteorite group and so toes are usually put into early life hypotheses.”
Basically, this means that rocks like the one found by Joshua could give scientists clues to the beginning of life on Earth.
It’s a scientific salary that will not be measured in millions of dollars, but it is at the heart of why people are fascinated by meteorites to begin with.
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