Want a meteorite? Christie’s set to auction unique space rocks

Christie’s London offering all manner of cool meteorites

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Credit: NASA

It’s not everyday you could have the opportunity to buy a piece of space – but Christie’s London auction house will on April 20 offer about 80 meteorite pieces and a bunch of space rock paraphernalia to go along with them.

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The meteorite collection is made up of a variety of sample space rocks from private and public collections with some items expected to fetch over a million dollars at the auction.

Arguably the most interesting space rock up for sale is one known as the Valera Meteorite – which is purported to have killed a cow. The Christie’s entry for Valera looks like this:

VALERA METEORITE — THE ONLY DOCUMENTED METEORITE TO HAVE KILLED

One face is cut and polished. The multi-hued variegated matrix is embedded with sparkling metallic grains, and a single large metallic inclusion is at the left margin. Blurred chondrule boundaries evidence heating on its parent asteroid long before its brush with Earth and a cow. An echo in miniature of the devastating asteroid believed to have killed off the dinosaurs, it was on the evening of October 15, 1972 that farmhands in Trujillo, Venezuela were startled by an inexplicable sonic boom. The next day an exotic rock was found alongside a cow’s carcass whose neck and clavicle had been pulverized. It was obvious to the farm’s owner, physician Dr. Argimiro Gonzalez, what had occurred, but he didn’t give it a second thought since mayhem from falling meteorites seemed intuitive. An unplanned steak dinner was enjoyed that night and the celestial boulder was used as a doorstop. More than a decade later scientists confirmed what Dr. Gonzalez had long presumed. However, what Dr. Gonzalez didn’t know was that this was the first and still the only documented fatal meteorite impact. When Dr. Ignacio Ferrin, an astronomer at the University of the Andes, learned of the act of bovicide that had occurred at Valera, he visited the Gonzalez estate and left with an affidavit affirming the aforementioned events as well as the meteorite itself.

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Another historic space nugget, The Wold Cottage meteorite is also on the auction package. From Christie’s: The Wold Cottage meteorite played a crucial role in the scientific community’s acceptance that rocks could indeed fall out of the sky—a notion previously met with disbelief or considered heretical. On December 13, 1795, Wold Cottage crashed to Earth just yards from farmworker John Shipley. Edward Topham, the owner of the Wold Cottage estate, was away in London at the time, but he hurried home after reading accounts in the press. Topham was a well-known bon vivant with a sterling reputation. Certain that the stone was of great import, Topham arranged to have Wold Cottage placed on exhibition in London, helping to sway public opinion to embrace Shipley’s extraordinary claim. The scientific community took note, especially after Wold Cottage proved similar to a rock reported to have fallen out of the sky eighteen months earlier in Siena, Italy.The fact that two stones from different localities had common characteristics convinced many scientists of their possible extraterrestrial origin. This is an uncommon offering of an extremely historic meteorite.

The meteorite that might bring the highest bid – because of its size, 1,400 lbs and significance -- is the Brenham meteorite. According to the Christie’s write-up: As evidenced by its shape, this meteorite—unlike the vast majority of other meteorites — did not tumble or change its vertical axis as it plunged through Earth’s atmosphere. The parabolic "heat shield" curvature seen here was sculpted at exceedingly high temperatures, and is the most efficient angle at which heat deflects from a falling object. This is the reason NASA engineers studied this parabola in other oriented meteorites when designing the heat shields for the first manned space capsules. The smoothness of the surface is the result of the melting process in Earth's upper atmosphere in which olivine crystals melted and exposed tendrils of the nickel-iron matrix in a process that repeated until the meteorite slowed to terminal velocity. A significant fraction of the meteorite vaporized or ablated off its edges during its descent. The ablative heat shield-like action pushed the hottest gasses (referred to as the shock layer — which is hotter than the surface of the sun — away from the meteorite).

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