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W.Va. businessman and meteorite hunter sells his finds

GLEN DALE, W.Va.-- After putting his skills as a certified public accountant to work as controller for a pair of Northern Panhandle companies that ended up going belly up in the 1980s and '90s, Jim Strope's career path took a meteoric turn.

The 62-year-old Glen Dale man is now the owner of Catch a Falling Star, a business that sells museum-quality meteorites to collectors and educators around the world. Strope is also one of the nation's top meteorite hunters, traveling from Oman and Morocco to Chile and Canada searching for fragments of asteroids and planets that have fallen to Earth.

Strope said he first became interested in meteorites in 1992, while taking in a rock and gem show in Pittsburgh that included a small display of meteorite specimens up for sale.

"I didn't know you could own a meteorite," Strope said. "I bought one of the specimens and brought it home and started researching it. From there, things kind of got out of hand."

Strope bought more small meteorites and meteorite cross-sections through mail order houses and began helping a dealer he'd become acquainted with at two of the nation's biggest meteorite shows.

He then started hunting for meteorites, first in the dry lakebeds of Nevada and California, and eventually broadening his searches to include locales in Africa, South America, Canada and the Middle East.

In 2001, he traveled to the Todra Gorge region of Morocco with Arizona meteorite hunters Michael and Kim Farmer, where they bought a potato-sized meteorite from a local tribesman.

Back in the United States, the 1,015-gram space rock was examined by scientists and determined to be a rare lunar meteorite, one of fewer than 100 moon rocks known to have landed on Earth's surface after being blasted off the moon by impact from meteor strikes. Since the expedition to Morocco was bankrolled in part by 11 other meteorite collectors, acquiring the large, valuable lunar meteorite "was like a group of co-workers or friends hitting the lottery," Strope wrote in an online account of the trip.

"When we first started going to Morocco, people were bringing rocks out of the desert to see if we were interested in buying," Strope said in an interview last week. "Now, everyone's on the Internet, selling directly to collectors around the world."

Strope first visited Oman on a meteorite-hunting trip in 2003. Once at a "strewn field," or a site where meteorites from a single fall are known to exist, spotting the space rocks is not always difficult, he said.

The contrast between the pebbly white desert floor and dark meteorites makes it possible to "drive around and spot a dark rock from a mile away. When you stop, you can usually pick up your meteorite."

Strope, who has hunted meteorites in Oman on several occasions, said that nation's political situation left him feeling uneasy and not anxious to revisit. His grounds for uneasiness were substantiated three years ago, when his Arizona friend Michael Farmer was arrested for doing what he had legally done during 19 previous meteor-hunting trips to Oman. Farmer and a colleague were arrested and jailed for six weeks on a charge of "illegal mining activity" before being deported and banned from returning for life.

Other locales where Strope has unearthed meteorites include Chile's Imilac Strewn Field and Monturaqui Crater, site of a 100,000-year-old meteor impact crater; Springwater Strewn Field in Canada's Saskatchewan province, where a member of the search team Strope was associated with dug up a 52-kilogram monster, and New Mexico's Glorieta Pass, where Strope detected and dug up a 1.3-kilogram meteorite in 2008.

"A few weeks ago, I went out to an area along the Ohio-Indiana border where a fireball had been spotted and Doppler radar images indicated the presence of a meteorite passing through," Strope said. "Some friends from Arizona and Arkansas came up, and we got permission from farmers to search their corn and soybean fields that had been harvested. Unfortunately, we didn't find anything, but that's not at all unusual in meteorite hunting. It might have fallen in another field, or disintegrated into dust."

Strope uses a hand-held metal detector on most meteorite hunts, but when hunting on agricultural land, after harvests have taken place, like the Saskatchewan expedition, "we use detectors dragged behind four-wheelers," he said.

Strope says he keeps a bag packed and ready for travel if a promising fireball is seen anywhere over the United States or Canada.

"You get a really special feeling when you find a meteorite yourself and pick it off the ground," Strope said. "It's something that's been traveling through space, and may have been part of the moon or of Mars, and you're the first person ever to touch it. The ones you find are hard to sell."

Strope said he buys and trades for meteorites to resell, either via his website (www.ab1.com), through eBay, or at one of the two or three shows where he exhibits annually.

"It's both a business and a hobby for me," Strope said. "I love to find and collect meteorites, but I've also got to cover my expenses. It's a business where you make a lot of trips and on many of them, you don't find anything."

Meteorite values range from about 50 cents per gram for small stone chondrites formed from asteroid fragments to $1,000 per gram or more for lunar or Martian meteorites.

To date, only three meteorites have been recovered in Strope's home state of West Virginia. The Glen Dale man said the relatively low number of Mountain State meteorites is mainly due to the state's abundance of steep, wooded hillsides and lack of flat, tillable farm terrain, where most meteorites turn up after plowing.

The state's largest meteorite was discovered in 1930, by Grant County farmer V.A. Stump, as he was plowing a field about one mile east of the Landes Post Office.

Stump didn't immediately recognize the strange-looking, unusually heavy stone as a meteorite, and in fact used the space rock for more than 20 years to weigh down a land plane used to prepare a field for planting after plowing. The 155-pound farm tool was not identified as a meteorite until 1968, soon after Stump read an article in a John Deere owners' magazine about how tractor-worked fields can produce cash crops of meteorites.

An 11-pound meteorite that was found a few miles north of White Sulphur Springs in 1880 is known as the Greenbrier Meteorite, while the state's third meteorite, known officially as the Jenny's Creek Meteorite, is a 26-pound space rock that fell near Jennies Creek near the Wayne-Mingo County line in 1883.

Strope has acquired slices and fragments of the Landes and Jenny's Creek meteorites, "but so far, I haven't been able to get hold of the Greenbrier," he said. "I'd really like to have pieces of all three West Virginia meteorites some day." Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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