The meteorite ‘hunter’ who greets and shelters China’s visitors from the cosmos

Yang Kexin has rejected numerous monetary offers for the meteor fragments she has collected in the desert, preferring to share them with the public for nothing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 9:11am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 9:29pm

“What do stars in the sky look like? Can I pick them down?” the young Yang Kexin would ask herself on summer nights, gazing up at the heavens from the yard of her childhood home in southwest China’s rural Guizhou province.

As she grew up, her dream of gathering stars took a back seat to the more earthly matters of adult life, but she never stopped thinking about those remote incandescent bodies that illuminated the night sky.

Then one day, Yang’s work took her to Xinjiang in China’s arid northwest. In the region’s vast Gobi desert, she reconnected with her childhood passion and launched a life filled with adventure tied to those mysterious visitors from the cosmos.

Yang is a “meteorite hunter”.

In her zeal to capture fragments of meteors, she has criss-crossed the Gobi hundreds of times. In the past five years, she has harvested more than 600 specimens of meteorites weighing a total of 400kg (882 pounds).

“I have donated some of my meteorites to mainland scientists to research, because the biggest value for meteorites is for scientific research,” Yang, 28, told the South China Morning Post.

China has no regulations saying who owns meteorites that land on its soil, so no law prevents people picking up and trading these pieces of the celestial sphere, which can command a handsome price on the country’s lucrative meteorites market.

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Early this month, pieces of a meteor that flashed across the sky and landed near Xishuangbanna, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, were being offered for sale for as much as 50,000 yuan (US$7,800) per gram, local media reported.

More typically, meteorites have been known to sell for 500 yuan (US$78) per gram, still making them more expensive than gold, according to news website caijing.com.cn.

But Yang has rejected numerous offers to buy her “stars”, instead opting to share these “gifts from space” with the public.

In mid-2017, she opened a meteorite museum in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou, where people could view some 300 meteorites for nothing.

“I won’t sell the rest of my stars,” Yang said. “Behind each of them is a story of mine and there is an arduous process of hunting each of them.”

The museum, housed in a room of about 100 square metres in a local antique trading centre, is the only one of its kind in southwestern China. Its location is a nod to Yang’s home province, where the seeds were sown for her eventual emergence as a revered star catcher.

Her collection includes many meteorites authenticated by the Meteoritical Society, a US-based non-profit scholarly organisation that promotes planetary science research and education.

Yang, who opened the museum after quitting her job in Xinjiang, wears two hats as its sole staff member and provider of funding.

She had tried to raise money to cover its operating costs by selling artefacts made from other precious stones, such as jade, that she had picked up in Xinjiang, but stopped doing so because of a feeling that it was not true to her meteoritical mission.

Instead, she sells small meteorite samples and artefacts made from meteorites, which raises a modest amount of money.

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“During good times, I can make over 5,000 yuan a month,” Yang said. “I am poor and I am struggling to maintain this museum. I do hope I can receive some aid from the authorities or from the society.”

The Institute of Geochemistry at the Academy of Chinese Sciences in Guiyang provides the museum with meteoritical advice and supplies scientists for lectures.

Yang would like the museum to partner with local schools in programmes that would open up the wonders of the extraterrestrial world to young pupils. “I find more and more kids are interested in things from the sky,” she said. “I receive dozens of visitors every day to my museum, most of whom are parents taking their kids.”

The turning point in Yang’s love affair with meteorites came in 2012, when she started a job as a coal mine equipment salesperson in Hami, a city in Xinjiang.

To the south lay the Gobi desert, a well-known destination for stone treasure hunters. When someone showed Yang a meteorite found in the desert, she was hooked.

“I am curious about meteorites,” she said. “They are so scarce. I think it would be lucky if I can find and touch these stars.”

So on weekends and public holidays, Yang and a couple of her friends drove into the desert to search some of its 1.3 million sq km – an area roughly six times the size of Britain – for meteorites.

She recalls vividly her thrill at finding a meteorite for the first time. After three days of scouring the Gobi’s barren expanses of gravel plains and rocky outcrops and finding nothing, she and her party were about to head for home.

Then Yang noticed an unusual-looking stone.

It appeared to be the mysterious visitor from outer space she had long dreamed of meeting.

“The side of the meteorite which touches the land had got rusty [due to metals inside it],” Yang said.

“It was heavier than ordinary stones. And magnetic. From these clues, I had 80 per cent confidence that it was a meteorite.

“I almost knelt down in front of it, I was so thrilled,” she said.

Yang learned the hard way that thorough preparation is a must for meteorite hunting in the desert.

The dry climate helps preserve any meteor fragments that land there, but can bring heavy sandstorms in spring and scorching temperatures in summer.

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In 2013, one of her first trips to Lop Nor – a dried-up former salt lake between the Taklamakan and Kumtag deserts in southeastern Xinjiang – nearly cost Yang her life.

Two SUVs had been hired for the expedition into this “dead zone”. When it was time to leave, Yang was hundreds of metres away, searching for meteorites.

Each group of passengers wrongly assumed Yang would ride in the other’s car, and drove off, leaving her behind. They failed to notice her frantically chasing them and yelling at them to stop.

It was only after they had driven 40km and stopped to check their tyres that they noticed Yang was missing. Panic-stricken, they rushed back to the site. Would they find her, and would she be all right? they worried.

Yang soon found herself alone in the dark, cold desert as the sun set. Her mind was filled with fears of encountering wild animals.

“I was very much frightened,” she recalled.

Parched with thirst, she felt the energy draining out of her. Her mobile phone was useless to her as a communication tool, given the poor signal reception.

But its flashlight still worked. She turned it on and aimed the beam downward, believing her only hope for survival was to follow the car trails on the ground.

Yang had no idea how long she had been walking when car lights suddenly pierced the darkness. Overjoyed, she realised her cohorts had found her.

“I hugged them and cried,” Yang said.

Yang never again ventured out into the desert without equipping herself properly. Standard equipment on her trips from then on would include walkie-talkies, a GPS navigator, plenty of water, food and petrol.

That life-threatening experience has failed to dim her enthusiasm for her avocation – or for her mission, which remains to “find more stars”.