Serving The Meteorite Community Since 2002

The Classification Process

Over the years I have written about meteorites that I have sent off for classification. Repeatedly the question “How can I get a meteorite classified?” has been asked. At gem shows there are boxes of meteorites for sale and unfortunately rocks being called meteorites but which are not. Meteorites with no pedigree can also be bought online. They are often called “unclassified meteorites” in advertisements. I am not going to talk about the frauds that are offered increasingly often with outrageous claims of their rarity. This article is about what a person does to get a genuine meteorite classified.

First, let me update readers with a bit of information. In a recent past article, I was waiting for the final word on a 15-kilogram meteorite that Jason Phillips and I purchased just as the world shut down for the pandemic. It was in March of 2020. It took weeks for the meteorite to finally arrive and nearly a year to be finalized. We got the word a couple of weeks ago that the meteorite has now been approved and added to the database of official meteorites. NWA 14006 is its designation. It is an L4 ordinary chondrite. Now the halves of this stone are in our collections as a meteorite with a pedigree. Leaving that large meteorite unclassified just seemed wrong. We were hoping as always that it would be a type 3. Win a few lose a few but not a surprise after we had the meteorite in our hands. Using photos only is a hard way to be sure what you are buying.

I often have a meteorite or two working their way through the classification system and the following is a summary of how that process takes place. I have two going right now. One a for sure Eucrite or Howardite and the other reportedly a brachinite. The process begins with the purchase, trade, or finding of a meteorite. Someone knowledgeable should examine the stone and say, “Yes it is a meteorite” if the finder is a bit untrained in meteorites. With laboratories receiving hundreds if not thousands of stones a year of which 99.999% are not meteorites they may question the validity of the rock and your knowledge as the submitter if you are not someone they have dealt with in the past. If you are a rockhound or metal detectorist but not a meteorite collector or meteorite hunter you may find it best to send a piece of the suspect stone for initial examination before sending a piece to a lab for classification. Labs will not usually return non-meteorites sent to them. They don’t have money or time for shipping back. An internet search will give the name and location of some services that for a low cost or no cost will take that first look at your rock. If you purchased your stone from a reliable meteorite dealer and desire to make it official you can probably go ahead and send a piece to a lab for classification. I should probably say here at the beginning that it is not uncommon to wait for the better part of a year or longer to hear results. Though it can take less time. There will very likely be a charge for the classification work and it can be hundreds of dollars. Something to consider if you have bought a small ordinary chondrite for say $30-$50. You will have a classified stone that will probably still be worth less than a dollar a gram. Another thing to consider is, if you bought the stone because it was very nice looking and complete or nearly complete it will have to be broken or cut to obtain the specimen used in the classification process. It may not be as pretty any longer. Many collectors have beautiful unclassified meteorites that are just too nice to cut to make them official. It is OK to not have all your meteorites classified.

I don’t know if we actually have a brachinite submitted or not. This thin section image does not look like brachinites I have seen. It was a hard thin section to make as the meteorite is very crumbly and I will better stablize it for the next thin sections I attempt to make. The exterior of the stones as seen below is very similar to some brachinite images I looked at online. The cut and polished surface is also similar in appearance to a few images online so I remain hopeful that it is a brachinite.

The stones that were suppose to be eucrites do look like a eucrite so I am not too worried that we actually received what we were told. Except for the paler color it reminds me of NWA1109. I have only made two cuts on a small piece to get a slice for a thin section. I have not seen any basaltic eucrite clasts yet which are seen in NWA1109. It has dark clasts and small crystals throughout the matrix. As seen in the image above some pieces have a preserved black fusion crust.

If you decide after thinking about the issues mentioned above that you want to get a stone classified, here are the basics. You find a lab that is accepting submissions for classification. This is usually done by sending an email to the scientist and ask if they are willing to classify your stone. Once you have a scientist then you need to send a piece of the stone or the whole stone to the lab. I prefer to send a small piece since it saves a big bunch of money in shipping costs going both ways. I also have the stone to enjoy and examine myself while the months pass during the analysis and approval process. The following is the rule for how much to submit. You have to send 20 grams or 20%. So if the stone weighs 240 grams for instance then just 20 grams needs to be sent. If however, you found a small stone that weighs a mear 6.8 grams then you would need to send 1.36 grams (20%) for the type specimen that is permanently kept in the lab’s collection.

Here is the first big snag for many people. How to get the type specimen piece. If the stone is big then just smacking it with a hammer and chisel to remove a piece about the size of a walnut is easy enough. But if the stone is only the size of a peanut, to begin with how do you create a type specimen 20 percent of the small stone? If you have a diamond lapidary saw with a super-thin blade you are all set. Or if you know someone with one then again you are all set. Perhaps a local lapidary or gem and mineral club member can help. But it may be better to send the whole small stone and let the lab remove as close to 20 % as they can.

After the type specimen has been broken or cut off there is just the sending of it to the lab. No other big decisions are required. But there are a few other important things to do.

The lab will need full information about the stone. As much as you know. If you bought it from a dealer at a gem show and know nothing else except that it came from North Africa that is all you can say about the acquisition. So, North Africa, bought on such and such date, stone weighs a total of . . .and you provide the weight and a good description of the stone. You tell the classifying lab your name and the address where the main mass of the stone will be kept.

However, if you found the stone in the desert or somewhere else then you need to provide the nearest city name, the GPS coordinates that the stone was lying at and the date that the stone was found. Also, any information about the appearance of the stone, its color, whether there was fusion crust or not, whether it was cracked or solid, a single stone or many fragments, etc. All such details should be given to the classifier so they can be included in the official write-up in the Meteoritical Bulletin. The classifier will not know its physical characteristics beyond the appearance of the small piece they receive. Tell them if it has a desert varnish or fusion crust, thumbprinting or a broken surface, outside color, the inside color if visible, rusted or not, etc. What you tell them will form the physical characteristics portion of the write-up in the Meteoritical Bulletin Database entry for your stone. One could choose I suppose to submit the stone themselves which I have never done. In which case the submitter will get the results of the analysis and do the filling out of the submission forms at the Meteoritical Society website.

This is where the honesty of an individual can be tested. Let’s say for example that you found a stone on a trip to the desert metal detecting but you have also been keeping your eyes out for meteorites for a long time. You are delighted and thrilled that you finally found one. You return to the location later and find another stone or two or even more. Later you want to sell some of the stones and keep just a few yourself. You know that classified meteorites are worth more. But you don’t want others to know where you are finding them. You want to sell them soon but could wait for a year for a classification. You can recover more during that time. Do you tell the world the true location of where they are being found or use a location several miles away to protect your hunting ground from competitors so you can sell immediately and forever? We all understand the reasons. It may be that you have found the stones where you have no right to hunt. It could be private land where you have not gotten permission from the owner to hunt. It could be on public land where ownership is the government’s. It could be federal or protected land where nothing can be collected. A host of reasons exist for why a person might want to disguise the true location of their meteorite finds. This has happened often enough. It is better to wait, hunt out the strewnfield some more, and sell later. You are not going to find them all anyway. It does take time and many people to clear out a fall area. There will likely always be some competition.

After the write-up about the stone and the find (purchase) information is sent to the classifier the long wait begins. It is not unusual to hear nothing about your stone for months. Emailing repeatedly asking when will it be done is bad form. It may not be received well by the lab. Most labs are working on many meteorites all the time. Often the scientists have full class loads and work on classifications when they can and during summer break. You must just relax and wait. I did relax and wait on one occasion years ago and after months finally asked the classifier how it was going. I got a message back that he did not have the specimen. It was recorded received and had been lost in the mess of his office. Apologetically he asked if I could send another piece. It was a 6+ kilogram stone so no problem giving up an additional 30 grams or so. I sent the second piece and soon after heard back that the professor had drafted grad students to clean and organize his office and the first type specimen was found and added with the second. The classification was expedited and I got the results in a short time. I talked about the time frame is often close to a year and that has been the case lately. The same classifier that misplaced the type specimen was contacted a few years later about a beautiful impact melt stone. I guess this is one of his areas of interest for he got the entire process completed on that stone in about a month. So once in a while, the stars align and things go faster. They will go faster also if the stone is a newly witnessed fall. There is some prestige in being the first scientist to report on a new fall. I would suggest using a shipping method that provides tracking so you at least know that your meteorite sample package was received. Getting a “received by” signature is not a bad idea either. This will give you some peace of mind if you don’t get an actual confirmation email from the classifier.

Your stone or perhaps at this point it is OK to call it a meteorite will go into a queue with all the others sent to the lab. The type specimen that you have removed from the main mass or the small stone if you sent it all will have a slice removed to become a thin section. It might seem a bit funny that with all the high technology equipment used to classify meteorites today it is still going to be examined by a trained person under an optical petrographic microscope. But it will. There is much more involved in classification than just the chemistry and average chondrule size. The thin section is often used for both examinations in the microprobe and under the microscope. Getting the thin section manufactured unfortunately is often a real-time consumer in this process. It is not uncommon to see 8-10 weeks as the time required to get a thin section made and returned to the classifier. On a recent submission of mine, it was far longer, more like 14-16 weeks. This is always a bit of a cheek biter for me as I try and control my frustration. By this point in the classification process, I almost always have four or five homemade thin sections of the stone. I am wondering by this point how a petrographic slide company can stay in business delivering such poor untimely service. It only takes me by hand about an hour per thin section and surely takes less doing it with special machines designed to make several at once. The only explanation seems to be that they have huge backlogs of work and plenty of customers that don’t mind paying the large rush charge to get their thin sections pushed ahead of the queue. This of course moves everyone else back and then back again and again. The big commercial thin section companies service oil companies and mining companies and they have the money to spend on the rush upcharge but not the time to wait in a queue. Meteorite labs connected to universities are usually in a no extra money and overworked situation so waiting for thin sections at the lowest cost is part of doing the job. Some send work to small specialty thin section makers who take much longer than larger commercial manufacturers. They may or may not do a better job than the large manufacturers. I have heard complaints about the quality of thin sections even after the long waiting period.

Earlier I mentioned that classification work today nearly always costs money. In the past (25 years ago) doing classification work was part of being in the professional meteorite world. The public institutions were somewhat expected to do the work as a service to the public that funded the institutions. It was just understood that a California meteorite find could get classified at a lab in the state-run college or university. That is not the case so often now unless you pay to get the work done and the lab personnel is willing. Meteorite researchers formerly got material for research from the donated meteorites sent to be classified. Moving forward to the present. With the big rush of meteorites flowing from the deserts of the world into labs, the scientists have a choice of what they will work on. They can select from a giant pool the meteorites anything they need for research projects. There is a difference in the symbiotic relationship between scientists and meteorite hunters and dealers now. The result is even the public institutions require payment for machine time and materials at least. We know that better technology brings higher machine costs, higher maintenance costs, and higher supply costs. The price of thin sections and lapidary equipment has risen right along too. The small number of meteorites to classify in monthly batches has turned into a mountain of work without end. Some labs give part of the work to grad students. They do data collecting and other tasks under supervision as part of their training. This is a good thing since these students will be the classifiers of the future. The price for a classification varies from lab to lab. For an ordinary chondrite one could expect to pay $150-$250 as a rough guess today. The last chondrite I had done cost $250. If you happen to feel like you want a number for a Lunar or martian meteorite that you bought without a pedigree. Then you can expect with the additional testing that is required a price above $600 and the specimen may have to travel to more than a single lab. You will often still be giving up the same amount of material for the type specimen. That 20 gram or 20% donation will add much more money to the price of getting a personal number for the stone. With Lunar and martian meteorites selling for hundreds of dollars per gram, you could be giving away thousands of dollars as the type specimen. This is something many people don’t consider when they discuss or complain about the high cost of rare meteorites. Dealers often have to absorb the type specimen donation and the cost of the classification work before they have sold a single gram of the meteorite. A stone they had to travel thousands of miles to recover or purchase in the field.

You often see at the end of the final write-up in the Meteoritical Bulletin something similar to the following, “type specimen of XX grams plus one thin section and a potted butt.” After which the location where the meteorite material will be available is written. Should your meteorite turn out to be something cool, scientists can ask to examine that small amount which you have sent. Your stone may make its way into a research paper or graduate thesis. Every bit of what you sent, less a little waste in cutting is accounted for in the database entry.

Should your meteorite turn out to be paired with others stones already classified the amount you have stated as the Total Known Weight will be diluted a bit. But you will still have your number for your stone. If you tell the truth about where you found your multiple stones and more are found by other hunters you will always be the beginning of the story but you will have difficulty in preventing others from using your meteorite’s number or name. It is just a fact that it costs someone the money to have the meteorite classified and that saves others downstream the cost of doing it too. This of course raises the problem of the visual pairing of stones. Saying two stones are from the same fall by just looking at them is a questionable practice in the best of cases even where a meteorite is unique and distinctive. It is a terrible practice when the meteorite is sort of average in appearance. The visual pairing of meteorites for sale is highly discouraged within the meteorite community and to do it to avoid the classification costs or because it seems easy to do is just bad. But it may happen to you after you get your meteorite classified. This brings us to the second main reason, to tell the truth to science about where the meteorite was found. The best way to make sure your stone stays as unique as possible is to be able to distinguish it from other stones by where it was found. If good reliable location information is given then a meteorite very similar but found somewhere else can never be called by the name or number of yours. But if you tell a fib and another finder tells the truth on a later submission of the same material then you are going to get a black eye in the meteorite world. It is better to wait and hunt until you are satisfied that you have found enough stones. Or hunt till the returns are no longer worth the investment of your time. Leave the strewnfield to others who can hunt hard and find one or two or often sadly none but get to have some fun. And then sell at a later time a pure truthful product.

After the science is done on your meteorite the classifier can usually submit the data to the Nomenclature Committee of the Meteoritical Society for you. They are the panel that approves the meteorite and its name or designation. Names for meteorites under best old-time protocols were that of the nearest town or village to the find site. In the absence of a town, a well-known geographical feature was sometimes used for the name. Under special situations, the finder (submitter) can appeal to the nomenclature committee. If your case is logical and reasonable you may get your special name. I had this situation years ago. I found a meteorite on the edge of a tailing pile at a mine site among a million bits of rock that were almost the same appearance. Talk about luck and following a feeling and not tossing the stone away. Well, the mine site was only roughly a quarter-mile from a named dry lake which would normally in the South Western United States be used as the name for the meteorites found on it. No meteorite had been or even still has been found on this large lake. Someday one will be found and it will receive the dry lake’s name. Naming my find for the dry lake since it was a small piece of a larger stone broken by miners and transported some distance to the mine was a bad idea I thought. Confusion would result between the lakebed meteorites and the one I found off the lake on the nearby mountain. The closest city already had a meteorite named after it years ago and was about ten miles from where I found my meteorite fragment. I wrote a letter to the chairperson of the nomenclature committee describing the future difficulties of naming my stone after the dry lake bed and related that the mine had a name that appears on all US Topographical maps of the area. It was a known geographical feature. My appeal was heard and the Old Dominion Mine meteorite got its name. Not long after other mines were used as names for meteorites to add clarity to dense collection areas with overlapping strewnfields. Long names of several words were also not used in the past but are more common now. If you have an Unclassified NWA meteorite you will get a number designation, not a name. If you have given really good location information about the finding of your stone you have a much better chance to get a name. Almost certainly a name if it is not from a dense collection area.

Your name as the finder, owner, submitter of the meteorite can appear in the list of collections on the Meteoritical Bulletin Database website. This is because you are holding the mass which was sampled for the classification. The collections are listed by the country, institution, and also private collections. You can state in the submission materials how you wish the location and possession of the stone to show. So you get a bit of print along with your meteorite. Forever you are famous as the person who brought that meteorite into the light with a proper pedigree and gave the world whatever bit of knowledge that stone had been holding since it was created. Good luck to all who take this journey through the meteorite classification process.

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