The story made headlines around the world – a meteorite crashes through the roof of an Indonesian villager’s home and turns out be worth millions, changing his life forever.
It was suggested that the find was worth $1.8m (£1.36m), making the man an overnight millionaire – and if he wasn’t, they debated whether he’d been short-changed selling it to US buyers.
But neither of those things is true. The meteorite is not worth millions, and no-one has been ripped off.
This dream come true is not quite as it first seemed.
A rock falls on a house…
Let’s get back to the actual story – fairy tale or not, it is fascinating. Josua Hutagalung, a coffin maker in a village in Sumatra, was minding his own business in early August when he heard a noise from above and – seconds later – a loud crash coming from his house.
At first, Josua was too scared to check what it was: the unknown object had come through his roof with such speed and force that it had cut right through the metal roofing and buried itself 15cm (6ins) deep into the soil floor.
He eventually dug out a strange small boulder weighing about 2kg (4.4lb).
“When I lifted it, it was still warm,” he told the BBC’s Indonesian service. “That’s when I thought that the object I was lifting was a meteorite from the sky. It was impossible for someone to throw a rock that big on to the roof of the house.”
It’s not every day that a boulder from space crashes through your roof, so Josua posted pictures of the exciting find on Facebook. And the news began to travel, far beyond his village, through Sumatra and Indonesia before reaching international ears.
Meteorites are essentially ancient rocks that have hurtled through space and – by pure chance – crash landed on earth.
Unsurprisingly, there is scientific interest in them. Questions range from where they come from to what they’re made of and what they can tell us about the universe.
Added to this is collectors’ interest. Meteorites are more than four billion years old – older than our own planet – so it’s easy to see the fascination they hold.
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And it was these collectors who became interested in Josua’s stone, eager to buy it. But in August, global travel was all but shut down because of Covid and getting on a quick flight to Indonesia was impossible.
That’s when some potential buyers in the US contacted fellow meteorite enthusiast Jared Collins, an American living in Indonesia, and asked whether he could help.
He made it to Sumatra, met Josua and inspected the boulder for authentication and to make sure it was properly stored. Contact with water, for instance, would have quickly damaged the meteorite.
“It’s incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to hold something that is a genuine, physical remnant from the very early stages of the creation of our solar system,” the American told the BBC this week.
“I immediately noticed its distinctive jet black interior and a thin light brown, pock marked exterior, which was created when it was travelling through the atmosphere.
“It also had a very unique smell which is hard to explain in words.”
Once the buyer in the US agreed with Josua on a price, the meteorite was sold, with Jared as the intermediary.
Both sides stress that the undisclosed amount was fair and that no-one got cheated in the deal. It was, however, nowhere near the figure that began popping up in headlines across the world – not even close.
A potential goldmine
So where did the $1.8m price come from? It’s a mix of a hopeful seller and some amateur maths.
Aside from the one large rock of about 2kg, there were a few smaller bits of the meteorite found near Josua’s home. Some of those were also sold and two of them ended up on Ebay in the US.
The asking prices are $285 for 0.3g and $29,120 for 33.68g. If you break that down, it equates to about $860 per gram. Multiplied with the weight of the large boulder, you arrive at $1.8m.
“When I read that figure, I had to laugh,” Laurence Garvie, a research professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, told the BBC. An international authority in the field, he was able to inspect parts of the Sumatra meteorite and did the official classification for it.
“I’ve seen this story so many times before,” he adds. “Someone finds a meteorite and they look on Ebay and think it’s worth millions because they see small fragments sold for a large amount.”
‘An extra-terrestrial mudball’
But that’s just not how it works.
“People are fascinated by owning something that’s older than the Earth, something that’s from space,” Prof Garvie explains. “So you might have people willing to pay a few hundred or thousand dollars for a small piece. But no-one would pay millions for a larger boulder.”
In fact, the price usually goes down as the size of the piece increases.
He also doubts that anyone would buy the pieces offered on Ebay for the asking price. Experts expect they might fetch maybe half.
So if the market value of a meteorite is almost impossible to determine, then what’s the actual value of the rock from Sumatra? The Arizona professor says it’s about 70-80% clay, basically “an extra-terrestrial mudball”.
“It’s dominated by a bit of iron, oxygen, magnesium, aluminium and calcium – that’s probably worth one dollar, two if I’m generous.”
He thinks it might have been about one metre across when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Breaking up upon entry, only a few pieces would have made it to the ground – one of which crashed through the roof of Josua Hutagalung’s house.
The building blocks of early life
The one thing that’s certain about meteorites is the scientific value of such finds.
The meteorite found in Sumatra is a carbonaceous chondrite, “remnants of the early solar system offer a window back in time to events that occurred prior to planet formation”, Jason Scott Herrin, of the Earth Observatory Singapore, told the BBC.
As they contain organic compounds and have been crashing on to Earth since the very beginning of our planet, meteorites “may have brought with them the building blocks of early life”, he explains. “They are highest in non-terrestrial amino acids of any meteorite group, and are thus commonly fingered as inputs in early life hypotheses.”
In essence, this means that stones like the one found by Josua can give scientists clues into the very beginning of life on Earth.
It’s a scientific payout that won’t be measured in millions of dollars, but is at the heart of why people are fascinated by meteorites to begin with.