Meteorite Man Seeks Life in Cosmic Rocks

When Robert Haag was 9 years old, he witnessed a spectacular sight in the air above a beach in Mexico. It was a meteor -- a bright fireball that began his lifelong fascination with these bits of outer space that sometimes fall to Earth.

Haag, now 52, is one of the best-known collectors of meteorites in the world. For the last 30 years, he's bought, sold, traded and donated meteorites to museums, planetariums, universities and private collections.

"Meteorites gave me the opportunity to participate in the space program in my own way," he said.

Life in a Rock?

This globe-hopping adventurer has been compared to the fictional movie character Indiana Jones. While Jones is known for hunting ancient artifacts like the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and, currently, in movie theaters, the legendary Crystal Skull, Haag is on a personal quest to find his own holy grail, the ultimate jackpot in his line of work: evidence of life in outer space.

"The proof may already be on the planet -- it's just waiting for the right guy or gal out there to find a meteorite that's never been seen on Earth before with the real proof that's gonna flip the scientific community on its head," he said.

Scientists once thought they may have found cosmic life in a meteorite, a specimen discovered in 1984 in Antarctica.

Several years passed before researchers studying the rock not only determined that it had originated from Mars, but also started to believe the rock contained traces of bacterial life.

It became the most-studied meteorite on Earth, but exhaustive tests showed no traces of ancient bacteria.

"The majority of people would say that what was seen in that particular meteorite was not, in fact, fossilized life. There could've been life on Mars at some point, but that's not the smoking gun," said geologist Glenn MacPherson, a meteor curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

"Certainly, most scientists believe that there is life outside of Earth -- whether there's any in our solar system or not, whether it comes from Mars or not, is a matter of some debate," MacPherson said. "I think most scientists hold open the possibility that that could happen."

Haag has hundreds of breathtaking specimens of iron and stony-iron rocks from the cosmos that can be easily viewed in his catalogue.

Meteorites 'Like Bugs on Earth's Windshield'

Meteorites are rocks from outer space -- usually fragments from asteroids, rocky and metallic bodies in orbit between Mars and Jupiter -- that make it all the way to Earth without burning up in the atmosphere. The ones we see streaking across the sky are generally very small particles that never make it to the ground.

"In some meteorites, we can actually find very tiny grains of stars -- we can show and understand that these particular grains were formed in supernova explosions or in red giant stars, and when these stars die, this material is spewed out into space," Denton Ebel, curator of the meteorite collection in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, told

"Most meteors that we see entering the atmosphere come from the asteroid belt, but some come from the planet Mars," Ebel said. "Our only samples on Earth of Martian rocks are meteorites blasted off the surface of Mars by impacts [of other meteorites]. These are like bugs on the Earth's windshield -- as the Earth goes around the sun, at a very high speed, these meteorites are like bugs on a windshield that we just hit on our way."

"They're a sample from another place in the universe -- of a star or a planet or a moon or an asteroid, something that fell out of the sky," Haag said. "When you look at human history, meteorites have been sacred because they fell from heaven."

Haag says hundreds of meteorites fall every year, but only a handful of them are actually seen falling through the air.

So there may be millions of meteorites just lying around waiting to be found. But why would anyone want to go looking for them? Well, one reason is their commercial value. In today's meteorite marketplace, these visitors from the stars can net anywhere from a few dollars to millions, depending on the size, quality and rarity of the specimen.

To zero in on the location of a meteorite, Haag depends on eyewitness accounts, news reports and, if the sighting is an older one, library research. When he hears about a new find and travels to the location, one of the factors he deals with is the question of who owns the rock. He says people often come out of the woodwork, claiming the rock was originally theirs.

"What happens is, somebody will find one, and because it has no title -- until someone picks it up -- it suddenly now has ownership," he said. "The problem has always been immediate, at the location where it fell: who owns that rock?"

How Rare Is Rare?

It's still a rare event to even find a meteorite, said Carl Francis, curator of the Minerological Museum at Harvard University.

"You start with a planet that gets broken up. Then, some of these pieces have to cross the orbit of Earth and get attracted in by its gravity -- so they don't miss it. And then, they have to not burn up entirely, then they have to hit land -- and not the 71 percent of the Earth's surface that's covered with water -- and then they have to be found by somebody, recognized as meteorites, and then studied," he said. "You've got a lot of steps, so a studied meteorite is a really, really rare thing."

Haag has learned over the years that rocks sitting somewhere they have no geological business being -- on a dry lake bed or in a field -- are likely meteorite candidates. But some are not so easy to find, such as those that wind up buried deep in the ground by the force of their impact.

A certain amount of adventure and risk comes with the territory of worldwide meteorite sleuthing, and Haag has had his share.

"I've been in some pretty remote places looking for these things," he said. "In the jungles of Mexico I ran into landslides, bandits and roads so narrow that my truck nearly went over. … I've also walked, unknowingly, through land mines."

His most recent meteorite hunt took him to Peru, near Lake Titicaca, in November to the crater made by a swarm of meteorites, most of which vaporized, leaving only a few pounds behind for Haag to find.

"It was a stone meteorite that was breaking apart real close to the ground, and it created a huge crater, blowing dust in the air, terrifying people and killing animals," he said.

As he always does before packing his bags and grabbing his passport, Haag researched this meteorite fall.

"I immediately left for the airport, to Miami, and went right down there, and I got there pretty much ahead of everybody else, working with some people from Peru who spoke the native Inca language -- it was really a great adventure."

More Than Just Bits of Rock

When NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on the red planet Sunday, the robotic craft began a three-month mission to dig into the northern polar region of Mars to see whether primitive life could have once thrived there.

MacPherson points out that "it's increasingly clear Mars is not a life-friendly place -- it's very hostile. If there's any life on Mars, it's not on the surface -- it's far underneath the surface."

But he still feels that studying meteorites is a lot more than just figuring out where some curious bits of rock came from.

"It's where astronomy and geology come together," he said. "Planets are not an unusual thing -- they're a consequence of star formation -- and understanding where our planets come from helps us understand about planets that are forming, literally, by the uncountable billions, throughout the universe, around stars everywhere."

While Haag appreciates the science of meteorites, he revels in the fact that he owns one of the only ultra-rare meteorites from Mars, which fell on Nigeria in 1962. He also may be the first person to have discovered a rock from the moon.

"There was a meteorite fall in Australia in the 1960s, and 25 years after that event, pieces were still sitting out there," Haag said. "And it was just luck that, in the thousands of stones that people picked up, they also picked up a piece of moon rock -- it had fallen there in a completely separate event."

Haag bought as many of the rocks as he could afford, and while sifting through and examining them, he noticed one rock was different from the others. After much research, it was determined that the stone was from the moon -- it's Haag's personal favorite meteorite.

Of Gemstones and Alien Life

According to Francis, one of the most fascinating aspects of the study of meteorites is what's inside them.

"When a meteorite falls through the atmosphere, friction with the air heats up the surface and melts it," he said. "So a fresh meteorite that just landed yesterday has a black, glassy surface, and it doesn't reveal what's inside it until you either cut it or slice it open."

Which is exactly what Haag does, using a high-tech diamond wire saw to cut into meteorites, revealing beautiful nickel-iron and magnesium-rich olivine crystals. One meteorite recovered from Esquel, Argentina, contains the best gem-quality peridot of any meteorite on Earth.

Beautiful crystals aren't the only thing that some meteorite hunters look for when they cut into the space rocks, though. Like Haag, they are hoping to find some sort of evidence of life in the cosmos, but there are those who wouldn't be happy with such a monumental discovery.

"I'm not sure I hope for it," Ebel said. "All these things become bigger than science. From a science point of view, it would be fascinating, but something that profound would have tremendous repercussions among all kinds of people, belief systems and people's view of the world."

"What would the finding of life -- truly alien life -- how would that affect people's views? I hope it would be positive," he said. "You're always playing with fire when you shake people to the core."

Still, scientists applaud Haag's zeal for meteorites.

"Robert Haag is the Indiana Jones of meteorites -- absolutely. There are others who travel [to find meteorites], but Robert has been a great popularizer of meteorites," Francis said. "His natural enthusiasm and ability to develop a market for meteorite specimens has encouraged other people to go out and hunt for more of them. … Before he got involved, we didn't know that we had any lunar meteorites."

All Competitors Welcome

Even Haag encourages people to trek into areas where meteorites may have fallen.

"If you take the time and search, and know what you're looking for, a typical meteorite fall can be worth $1 million," Haag said. "It's a lot of money for something that just came out of the sky brand new."

From a scientific point, MacPherson says it's important to study meteorites.

"Humans like to know where we came from -- it's one of the ultimate questions. Why are we here? Well, we're here because there was a planet in the right place with the right stuff that life could evolve," he said. "In studying meteorites, we've actually been able to glean how our solar system formed."

Haag has played an important role in that research, MacPherson said, because unlike many meteorite hunters, he recognizes that some of his finds belong in scientific and museum collections. Some meteorites acquired from Haag are currently on display in the Smithsonian, MacPherson added.

Where he was once the only full-time meteorite hunter in the world, Haag doesn't mind that the playing field has expanded. "There are hundreds of people looking for meteorites worldwide now -- I've got all kinds of competition nipping at my heels."

Why, after 30 years, does Haag still spend his life with meteorites?

"Because I love it," he said. "I can travel anywhere in the world, chasing these falling stars, and it's the thrill of the chase -- I'm addicted to it."

"I feel sorry for astronomers," Haag said. "They can look up at heavenly bodies, while I have them all over my house. I live among the stars."

Click here for more information about Haag and to view his meteorite collection, click here.