In a classic example of "manna from heaven," Al Stegora of Champlin, Minn., has sold a meteorite that dropped into his back yard thousands or millions of years ago to a consortium of six universities and museums for $38,000.
Stegora found the 123-pound rock in 1983.It was actually a chunk of metal, mostly iron and nickel, that was probably part of a distant asteroid formed billions of years ago when the solar system was born. A collision in deep space threw this piece toward Earth - and into what would become Stegora's back yard.
The tale of Stegora's rock began when he unearthed it with a backhoe while digging for a sewer connection.
The rock, about a foot long, a foot tall and 8 inches wide, came up with a scoop of sandy soil, but Stegora didn't notice it.
The following year, as he was finishing the project in his yard, he came across the lumpy black rock.
He lugged it over to his doorstep and left it there for five years, he said, hoping "somebody would see it and tell me what it was."
Stegora eventually moved it into his garage. It sat there for seven years.
"All of a sudden it was time to start looking into it," Stegora said.
On the advice of a friend of a friend, he called Robert Pepin, University of Minnesota geophysicist and planetary scientist. He told Stegora to saw off a corner and send it to him.
Two hacksaw blades later (iron meteorites are extremely hard) Stegora delivered a piece to Pepin. A quick look through a mass spectrometer revealed "it was clearly a meteor," Pepin said. He sent it to the lab of John Wasson at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He told Pepin to grab it for museums and research. Metal asteroids are vital to researchers who want to study the origins of the solar system.
"Metallic meteorites are usually asteroidal cores," or the metal cores from large asteroids created in the earliest days of the solar system. And they are the only core material available, "because we can't get the cores of planets or large bodies," Wasson said.
His detailed tests revealed something else that scientists hadn't expected - in chemistry and composition, Stegora's rock was an exact match with a 3-pound metal meteorite dug up by a farmer 4 miles north of Anoka, Minn., in 1961. It was clear, Pepin said, that Stegora's rock is a larger piece of the same meteoroid .
"Finding two pieces like this means this is probably close to where it fell," Pepin said. "There are probably tons of it scattered around out there."
Meanwhile, Stegora's friend, Winkleman, had put out word of the meteorite on the Internet along with Stegora's phone number. A dealer from New York called, and sight unseen said it was worth between $25,000 and $50,000.
Wasson immediately began putting together a consortium of universities and museums to buy the rock before a dealer could persuade Stegora to sell.
Wasson persuaded the Field Museum of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Harvard University, the British Museum in England, and his own institution, UCLA, to chip in funds totaling $38,000.
Pepin negotiated an agreement in which the meteorite would be cut into large slices, one going to each of the consortium members that agreed to put it on public display - something Stegora wanted. Another slice would remain at the University of Minnesota. A piece would go to scientists, and a final piece would be polished and given to Stegora.
Stegora agreed to the deal. He turned the meteorite over to Pepin and was handed the $38,000 check.
The last problem Stegora faces with his rock is figuring out how to pay taxes on it.
The IRS informed Stegora that the official ruling will arrive in his mail.