Cosmic loot worth its weight in gold

A metal detector, lots of patience, a sudden stroke of luck and a very special dog are what one needs to go on a hunt for fallen stars. Meteorites today may be more profitable than gold in mid-19th century America.

They do not believe in aliens or time machines, but they do spend most of their time looking for extraterrestrial matter that will take them billions of years back in time. Most meteorite hunters in Russia do it for profit, but some still see it as their way of hitchhiking through the galaxy.

"This is the oldest matter you can hold in your hands. There is a theory that meteorites are part of the planets' core. Just imagine, this piece is about four-and-a-half billion years old – like the Earth," meteorite hunter Dmitry Kachalin explains his fascination.

The valley near the village Dronino in Ryazan region about 300 kilometers east of Moscow is their latest pit stop. About 10,000 years ago, the local fields took a heavy pounding from a meteor shower, leaving the most fertile meteorite ground in Central Russia. Its discovery in 2000 was a pure accident.

"A few ditches were dug here, to help with the draining. After excavators left, a local resident was passing by. He noticed a rather strange rock and picked it up. The rock lay idle in his barn for two years until he saw a program about meteorites on TV and sent it in for testing," Dmitry Nuzhnenko, also a meteorite hunter, explains.

Within the next few years, more than 500 kilograms of meteoric material was discovered here, some with the unlikely help of an unusual Dalmatian dog. His owner says, he is the only dog in Russia trained to hunt for space rocks.

Meteorite hunting is a lot like gold digging. You have to spend weeks in the wild hoping for a stroke of luck. But at current prices, searching for these extraterrestrial rocks may be even more profitable than the good old gold fever. Some meteorites are worth several times their weight in gold.

The biggest findings usually gravitate to the United States and Western Europe where most meteorite collectors are based. And while Russia allows the export of extraterrestrial rocks, ten per cent of their value must be paid to the state.

Still, some dealers try and dodge the meteorite tax. For instance a four-tonne meteorite haul was uncovered earlier this year at a Moscow airport on its way, illegally, to the Czech Republic.

For some they are fallen stars, but for others meteorites are becoming a blazing-hot new commodity.