Before my article begins I want to share a little victory. Over the years I have thought about the first sci-fi novel I ever read. I could not remember the title or the author’s name but I remembered the story. It has been 60 years since I borrowed the book from the library. I read it when I was about 10 years old. During the last several years it has been cropping up in my mind every couple of months. So one evening this August I decided to see if I could find anything out about the novel on the internet. I put in this series of keywords into the browser search “science fiction novel 1960 spacemen asteroid thorium” and what do you know, my mystery novel was number two in the results. It is titled “Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet.” It was written by Harold L. Goodwin under the pseudonym Blake Savage. The novel was originally published in 1952 to be one in a series of space adventures. But to my knowledge no more episodes were written about Lt. Rip Foster spaceman hero of free people everywhere. It is still available, listed now as public domain, and is even in audiobook form. I ordered a copy for just $4.50. I am excited to read again this book that began my love of Science Fiction, astronomy, meteorites, and asteroids. It was the book that first sparked the idea of mining in space for me.
Final note: The book arrived and I read it cover to cover in one long sitting. The reprint copy had many OCR errors and tiny print. I had a headache much of the following day from straining to see the words. It was always a book for young people but I enjoyed reading it again at 70. I was surprised by the forward-thinking of the author. Many of the ideas and inventions described by the author in the book exist today.
Caring for a Meteorite Collection
We hear a great deal about the potential dangers of meteorite and asteroid impacts. But over the years I have written little about the dangers the Earth poses to meteorites. For most of my life, I lived within two or three miles of the Pacific Ocean. The moist salty air kept me from displaying many meteorites. Some were able to stay successfully in Riker cases but I was forced to keep many in sealed containers. It was not a lot of work protecting them but it was a routine that had to be done for each new acquisition.
There was a navy surplus sale on Saturdays when I was a kid and I always went to see all the cool stuff that was there. I never had much money till I got older and had a paper route. One Saturday there was a scintillator and a civil defense proportional counter for a couple of dollars each. They only needed batteries for me to start playing with them. They were my first introduction to detecting radioactivity. There was always something there that caught my eye and curiosity. It was sort of like what still happens at gem shows. I see a million rocks but only buy the ones that speak to me. Another Saturday there were some cans labeled “INDICATOR, HUMIDITY” the price was only fifty cents for a can that held 125 cards. I knew what they were, but did not have a use at the time for them, still, I bought three cans. Little did I know that they would be part of a lifetime supply of humidity indicator cards for a meteorite collection. I still have some of those and later I found some more at the famous TRW swap meet. One of those later cans I photographed and placed below. Living near the ocean it was really important to know how dry the meteorites were in their containers. It is a bit different now that I live in the mountains on the edge of the Mojave Desert. I have more NWA stones laying around. I would never have just left them out and about by the ocean.
As the years went by I started putting more meteorites into bottles and used fewer Riker and plastic cases. You could see me after everyone was gone from the Thanksgiving dinner table washing up the glass bottles that items like gravy or jelly came in so I could use them on meteorites. There are always Ball Jars and Mason Jars in the closet waiting for a meteorite to take up residence like some extraterrestrial hermit crab. And one of those long-held indicator cards is usually included as part of displaying the meteorite. It goes something like this. First, I put some padding in the bottom of the jar, (a circle of foam rubber) and sometimes a healthy amount of silica gel under the padding then the meteorite is positioned on top of the foam. More foam is put on top with an indicator card slid down the side of the jar. The airtight lid is screwed on and that meteorite is done forever, usually. I have meteorites that I did this process on that have stayed perfect with all blue indicator spots for twenty years. I don’t think I have returned to a jar to change desiccant in at least ten years on any bottle. Polished iron faces look just as shiny as the day they came off the lapping disc and polishing wheel. Fragile stones are gently supported and centered in the glass jars and never get banged around or chipped ever again.
I have a few meteorites that are stubborn stinkers and do not stay rust-free no matter what I do. These I put into 3D printed holders under glass sealed with O-ring gaskets. This has been successful for about half the trouble makers in the collection. The others I keep immersed in silica gel and rework as needed. I have soaked them for months in alcohol and neutralized them and they are just unstable. It is only about five or six out of all the meteorites. Since these troublesome ones are all rather small it is not worth sending them out for some modern electrochemical process to stabilize them.
I guess at this point in telling about my meteorite storage I can admit that one and only one meteorite ever disintegrated. Long ago I bought a roughly 700-gram Nantan for a few dollars. That was the price back then. But I should have turned up my volume and listened closely for the popping and snapping sounds of its self-destruction. Within a year it was a pile of angular bits in the metal can I had stored it in. I knew I needed to be careful with Nantans but I failed to keep a close enough eye on that one.
I have not done much meteorite hunting in the last year. But I have hopes that will change. I enjoy protecting and displaying the space rocks I find. Some are in Riker cases and others are in the bottle displays. I am more interested in showing these personal finds now than in displaying other meteorites.
Any meteorite stone larger than about half an inch thick needs to go into something other than a Riker case. The cases are not thick enough to hold them. Riker cases work well for slices and fragments but often not for whole specimens. I used to put silica gel under the filler in Riker-type cases. But it was a lot of work to monitor, change and recharge the desiccant. Bottles are maintenance-free, come in all sizes and the specimens generally have good visibility.
For the tiny specimens, I have used small bottles with corks and vials with screw tops. I make wooden racks to hold the bottles. The only real drawback to these is that the bottles are so small labels often cover too much of the glass surface. This makes seeing the meteorite a little difficult. Many of these small bottles contain rarer meteorites not ever available in larger sizes. Having protection is more important than visibility. Some of the meteorites in the tiny bottles are just fragments and I occasionally place the fragments into capsules and then put the capsules into the bottles. This has the added value of preventing me from losing the specimens if I drop them on the carpet. The capsules are easy to find.
Not all meteorites need moisture protection. The Lunar and martian meteorites have almost no metal to rust, I cut them thin and they work fine just protected from breakage in Riker type cases. The same thing goes for many of the achondrites which also have little nickel-iron metal. They do well in plastic or Riker cases. I have specimens in membrane boxes too. Some thought goes into deciding which are appropriate for putting in membrane-type boxes. Irons, pallasites, mesosiderites, and even some chondrites with large amounts of metal may not be safe in membrane boxes. The metal surface stays permanently in contact with the plastic membrane and even the tiniest amount of moisture can cause rust to form between the metal and the membrane. I try to use membrane boxes for small stones and stone slices and not for meteorites with larger areas of metal. The same metal to plastic contact with trapped moisture can happen with plastic bags. I try to always wrap meteorites in a paper towel or tissue before putting them in plastic bags, I usually pour some silica gel into the bag. If I am not going to get the meteorites out for a long time then I will throw in one of the indicator cards so I can see if they are remaining dry. Zipper-type plastic bags are notorious for not staying airtight for months at a time. On the meteorites that I cut a bit off of and then store again I often double bag them with some desiccant in the inner bag.
I know a lot of this is common sense but it is good to repeat since meteorites are the only truly foreign material on Earth. They are the real aliens. Before they landed here they spent their time in a vacuum without water (for most of them). Rusting and weathering as it happens on Earth was not possible. Compared to the millions of years they could remain unchanged in space, meteorites can decompose to unrecognizable blobs of goo in a geologically short time on Earth. Especially, if they fall into a harsh wet environment. Some meteorites that have fallen in jungles or water are never the same again, permanently unstable. Some can be fixed by the new methods created in the last few years that’s true. I have pieces of Bondoc that came from the jungle and were then reportedly cleaned by putting the material in acid. This double whammy has given me headaches for years. I left some Bondoc chunks immersed in isopropyl alcohol for a year in an attempt to soak out some of the contaminants. The alcohol discolored greatly. But overall I would say I had little success. My Bondoc meteorite pieces stay in solitary confinement with desiccant. They are only viewed on rare occasions. Not a great way to enjoy meteorites. I have ground and polished hundreds of grams of Bondoc making beautiful specimens. I held my breath with every piece fearing it would rust in a few days. Many did haze over in a short time. It is a tough meteorite for me to keep beautiful. It may be that I bought large masses that were more unstable than pieces others have purchased. I don’t know.
Once contaminated some meteorites can become a problem forever. It is exceedingly important when doing etching or other treatments that care be taken to neutralize and remove the chemicals. Once chemicals get down into cracks they sit there working away, damaging the meteorites. I bought an endpiece of Toluca from a famous meteorite dealer decades ago at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. It was a great-looking piece with a nice etch. I packed it away in my luggage. Four or five days later I got home to find the whole etched face covered with rust spots and the natural divisions between crystal grains deeply eroded as a spiderweb of brown lines. This wonderful specimen was never properly neutralized after etching, I suspect it was a rush job to get material prepared to sell at the gem show. I had to grind down the surface at a great loss of meteorite. I repolished the piece without an etch. I have over the thirty years since had to rework this endpiece two more times because of contaminants still down in the metal. It will never have an etch again or be a specimen I can put on permanent display. It was a real disappointment but an important lesson was learned. I am very selective now about who I buy etched iron meteorites from. I have gone so far as to buy whole iron-rich meteorites and cut or grind them myself to have a surface to etch.
I suppose this would be a great time to discuss coatings that are sometimes on meteorites. I have bought etched irons with coatings and I have even coated slices of iron-rich meteorites. I have etched irons in my collection that are uncoated and perfect after thirty years. I don’t think the problem or the protection is in the coating. It is all about the preparation and care of the meteorite. A properly prepared meteorite will survive well with just a little care, uncoated. A properly prepared and cared for meteorite with a coating will also survive well. But a meteorite that has been prepared poorly will go bad and show rust quickly, whether it is coated or not. The problem will not be stopped by a coating. It will fester under the coating. In my experience, a coating on badly prepared meteorites is far more damaging. The corrosion will eat down into the meteorite rather than being mostly on the surface. The corrosive agent cannot dry out and slow its work when a coating on the meteorite. When I do rarely coat an iron, pallasite, or mesosiderite I use lacquer. I like that it dries by evaporation, is not water-based, and cures hard very fast. But I should write here that I rarely coat a meteorite. I have maybe applied a coating five times in forty years.
A meteorite collection can be a major project or problem to maintain. Or it can be safely static and just enjoyed. It is sort of like weeds in your yard. You should never turn your back on weeds. If you don’t keep up with weeding they will take over the yard. Rust and deterioration of meteorites are the same way. The best thing I have found is to protect the meteorites permanently from the dangers on Earth when I first acquire them. Then I never have to worry about them anymore. It is a few minutes of labor on each one but after that nothing is required of me again. Yes, I sacrifice the handling of some of my space rocks. It is a price I am willing to pay to preserve them for generations of collectors after me. I have plenty of other meteorites to photograph, handle, cut, and enjoy in different ways. The vulnerable ones I keep safely enclosed in glass.