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Originally published March 17, 2012 at 8:16 PM | Page modified March 21, 2012 at 11:56 AM

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UW's Tony Irving is the go-to man in the red-hot world of meteorites

A chance meeting between a pair of treasure-hunting brothers and a geology professor affiliated with University of Washington has led to the discovery of some the most extraordinary and valuable meteorites in history.

Seattle Times environment reporter

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Long before he met the wealthy brothers, before he traveled to Morocco and received extraterrestrial nuggets in FedEx packages, Tony Irving got to touch the moon.

The Australian-born geochemist affiliated with the University of Washington spent his early career working with lunar fragments from the Apollo missions. Then, life being what it is, he returned to studying earthly matters — rocks that rise from the planet's mantle during volcanic eruptions. But a chance meeting brought him full-circle.

In the late 1990s, two adventurous computer entrepreneurs with a passion for metal-detecting and gold-panning brought Irving a strange rock. They thought they'd stumbled upon material from space.

They hadn't, but Irving and brothers Adam and Greg Hupé, of Everett, hit it off. The trio grew into an unorthodox team, becoming central players in a thriving international subculture — an obscure band of treasure hunters who scour the planet collecting, buying, selling and studying meteorites.

In this Byzantine world, geology is king. The brothers travel and barter to obtain uber-valuable celestial rocks. They mail pieces of the cosmos to Irving, who is now a leading expert at distinguishing real meteorites from their mundane terrestrial cousins, what he calls "meteor-wrongs."

"None of us realized what a bonanza it would be," Irving said.

It's a marriage that has given Irving a rare glimpse of far-flung corners of the universe, especially Mars.

"He's probably looked at more Martian meteorites than anyone in the world," said Irving's colleague, UW astronomer Don Brownlee, lead investigator for NASA's recent $212 million mission to study comet dust.

Lately such skills have been in high demand.

The market for meteorites exploded in the past dozen years, leading to ever more amazing discoveries — and some shenanigans. In January, a meteorite trader returned a 4.6 billion-year-old asteroid fragment he purchased from a thief who'd stolen it from a New Mexico museum. A dealer in Colorado was recently arrested, accused of selling lunar fakes.

But the number of documented meteorites from Mars also has doubled in less than a decade. This year, Irving helped confirm a fireball that streaked across the North African sky last July was a Mars meteorite. He did so by analyzing pieces of the rock gathered and sold by nomads in Morocco.

The find is only the 61st documented meteorite from the red planet, the first witnessed Martian meteorite to fall in 50 years, and the fifth such fall ever recorded. "Tissint," named for a village near where it landed, enthralled geologists around the world.

"This is actually the most exciting meteorite that I've come across so far in my career," the curator of London's Museum of Natural History told the BBC after examining a fist-size chunk. "Possibly it will be the most exciting meteorite that I will ever come across."

But for Irving and the Hupés, Tissint is one of many extraordinary finds.

Bonding over treasures

In fact, the brothers and Irving meeting each other may be their top discovery.

Adam and Greg, now both in their late 40s, ran a company called Computer Performance, but had bonded over their love of treasure hunting. They'd received a metal detector as a gift from their father in 1976. Over time it got so easy to find lost jewelry that they started panning for gold instead.

After stumbling on their weird fragment while prospecting — it turned out to be chromite — they talked to Irving about meteorites.

"I was just fascinated," said Adam Hupé, who now lives in Nevada. "This was a form of treasure-hunting, but a lot more rewarding than just going after gold. We could hunt for something with scientific value."

Tens of thousands of meteorites have been found on Earth. Most are fragments of asteroids, but a few are the result of "ejection by impact" — when an asteroid hits a moon or a planet hard enough to blast rocky specimens into space. The atmospheric gases trapped in rocks from the moon or Mars are unique and can be compared with gas samples gathered by NASA.

By the late 1990s, rising wealth and the Internet made it easier for people around the world to buy and sell obscure merchandise, including meteorites. While governments in Antarctica scoured the white snow for celestial rocks, a booming private market developed for rocks discovered in North Africa, where gray-black fragments stood out against hot-orange sand.

After decades of working 14-hour days, the Hupés sold their business and used their proceeds to buy meteorites online. Eventually, they financially backed meteorite-hunting trips. Irving evaluated their finds.

"We've got many different objects in the solar system, and there are only two ways to find them," Irving said. "Either you go there, or they come here. Luckily, with meteorites, you've got a delivery service."

For Irving, who had worked decades earlier with moon rocks at the University of Chicago and NASA's Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, the brothers' enthusiasm was infectious. The brothers liked the hunt — the thrill of collecting something unique with scientific value. Irving liked applying forensic expertise to understanding exotic pieces.

"I'm not saying it's not cool to hold in your hand a piece of something that is from Mars — it is," Irving said. "But ... I don't collect things, I document them. But I can't document them without someone else collecting them."

The Hupés introduced Irving to more collectors, but it didn't hurt that the Hupés also were very good at collecting.

"Planetary pieces"

"As a team, I'd say we've put together more planetary pieces than anybody else on Earth," Adam Hupé said.

Greg, the more adventurous of the two, splits his time between meteorites, diving in Florida rivers for fossils or hunting gold doubloons from Spanish shipwrecks. The brothers, especially Greg, began making dozens of trips to Morocco, primarily to buy meteorites from nomads and villagers. Some of the fragments were worth thousands of dollars a gram.

"I'd receive samples from Moroccan partners and make a judgment call," Greg Hupé said from Florida, where he now lives. "That graduated, in time, to sending the samples directly to the UW and paying for them to analyze them for us. Over the years we got to know exactly what to look for."

In late 2000, an expedition they helped finance purchased a large lunar chunk, known as NWA 482. Irving believes the rock is at least 4.4 billion years old.

"It was one of the crown jewels," Greg Hupé said. "It was just like, 'Wow.' "

A few years later, the brothers tracked down a Mars meteorite and, in 2007, pulled out their ultimate treasure — NWA 5000, a 26-pound lunar piece so precious Adam Hupé constantly moves it around to keep it safe.

"It appraised at $14.5 million," Adam Hupé said, adding that he's not in it for the money. He'd like to keep the rock intact and someday sell it to a museum.

"Hundreds of years from now, I don't want to be remembered as the jerk who cut the thing up into a million pieces for money," he said.

Figuring out what to do with that piece has put Adam's adventures on hold, but just last week Greg announced the discovery of another new meteorite type.

Meanwhile, Irving this week is scheduled to give a talk in Houston about Tissint. But he's also hoping to confirm soon that existence of two more meteorites from Mars.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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