What makes the Fukang Meteorite — a Pallasite meteorite found near Fukang, China in 2000 — so special?

In 2000, an anonymous hiker came across a 1,003-kilogram meteorite in the Gobi Desert near Fukang, in China’s Xinjiang Uygar Province. The way the story goes, this hiker had regularly stopped to eat at this rock on his hikes and had grown curious about just what kind of rock it was.

The hiker sent pieces of the rock to be examined in the U.S., where its identity as a meteorite was confirmed. You know it as the “Fukang Meteorite.”

What are meteorites?

NASA says meteoroids are “space rocks” ranging in size from mere grains of dust to small asteroids. They are commonly broken off from larger space bodies, such as comets, asteroids, moons, or planets.

A meteoroid that enters the atmosphere of a planet is called a meteor or shooting star. They usually burn up on the way through the atmosphere, never to been seen on land. A meteoroid that does make it to land is called a meteorite.

Backlit slices from the Fukang mass are reminiscent of stained glass windows crafted in the ancient solar system.

According to the Planetary Science Institute, about 1,100 meteorite falls have been observed and recovered. The Fukang Meteorite was not one of those. There is no record that anyone noticed it arrive.

Some 40,000 meteorites have been found that were not observed on their way to Earth. The Institute estimates that some 500 meteorites reach Earth annually — most falling into the oceans or onto remote parts of the Earth’s landmasses. Less than 10 meteorite falls every year are recovered.

The Fukang Meteorite made its public debut at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in February 2005. There, it weighed 983 kilograms. The finder had removed approximately 20 kilograms from the meteorite before putting it on display.

Pallasite (Fukang meteorite)
Pallasite (Fukang meteorite) / James St. John / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Pallasite meteorites

The Fukang Meteorite is a Pallasite meteorite. Pallasites are named after a German doctor and naturalist — Simon Peter Pallas — who described the Krasnojarsk Pallasite in 1772. The Krasnojarsk Pallasite was a 700-kilogram meteorite discovered in Krasnoyarsk, Russia in 1772.

Stony iron meteorites are made up of approximately equal amounts of silicate materials and nickel-iron metals. Pallasites are a sub-set of stony-iron meteorites. Pallasites are made up of a network of nickel-iron metal around crystals of olivine, a silicate mineral.

Olivine is a rock-forming mineral found on Earth in mafic and ultramafic igneous rocks like basalt, gabbro, dunite, diabase, and peridotite. Olivine is the mineral from which the gemstone peridot (August’s birthstone) is formed.

Earthly olivine is present in the planet’s mantle and appears in xenoliths, which are thrown on the surface by volcanic eruptions. But, as we know from the Fukang meteorite, there is extraterrestrial olivine out there, too.

Pallasite meteorites containing olivine are said to come from the mantle of a rocky planet that orbited between Mars and Jupiter. If not from a planet, it may have come from an asteroid big enough to have a distinct rock mantle and metallic core — a “differentiated” asteroid.

Pallasite meteorites are exceedingly rare since very few make it all the way through Earth’s atmosphere to land on the planet. Some have said that less than one percent of all meteorites are Pallasites.

According to the Planetary Science Institute, about 1,100 meteorite falls have been observed and recovered. Some 40,000 meteorites have been found that were not observed on their way to Earth.

How old do we think the Fukang Meteorite is?

The Fukang Meteorite is thought to have come from a planet or differentiated asteroid that was destroyed during the early formation of our solar system, roughly 4,500,000,000 years ago. Meteorites that are not completely destroyed by entry into Earth’s atmosphere are usually shattered into the tiniest fragments even before they land.

Landing commonly vaporizes any substantial chunks of meteorites that make it that far. The odds against a 1,000-kilogram meteorite making it to Gobi Desert in China to be stumbled upon by an anonymous hiker are stupendous.

What has been discovered about the Fukang Meteorite

The University of Arizona’s Dr. Dante Lauretta saw the Fukang Meteorite at the 2005 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The Fukang Meteorite was investigated at the Southwest Meteorite Centre, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Their findings were reported in “The Fukang Pallasite: Evidence for Non-Equilibrium Shock Processing” in Lunar and Planetary Science XXXVII (2006).

The investigators analyzed polished slabs from the meteorite and prepared thin sections of olivine-rich regions of the Fukang. Here’s an excerpt from the team’s findings:

The most noteworthy observation of the macroscopic specimen is its enormous mass and the presence of large olivine “clusters” heterogeneously distributed throughout the entire specimen. They range in size from less than 5 milimeters to several centimeters. Fukang contains several regions of “massive” olivine clusters up to 11 centimeters in diameter with thin metal veins only a few milimeters in width. Olivines vary in shape from rounded to angular. A subset of the olivine grains are highly fractured and exhibit a “cloudy” appearance. Other olivines are unfractured and clear. 

The University of Arizona continues to hold a 31-kilogram specimen of the Fukang Meteorite. Their website about the Fukang Pallasite describes it as “the most spectacular example of natural cosmic splendor.” Curator Marvin Killgore also owns a 31-kilogram specimen of the Fukang Meteorite.

The embedding of olivine crystals that makes a Pallasite a Pallasite also makes these meteorites hauntingly beautiful. Slices of the Fukang Meteorite held up to light seem to glow as the light passes through the olivines scattered within the nickel-iron matrix.

These are not dull lumps, but consist of roughly a 50-50 mix of metal and olivine crystals. Imagine light streaming through stained glass set within a network of lead but then remember that this “window” is over 4,500,000,000 years old and from deep space.

The Southwest Meteorite Laboratory describes the Fukang Meteorite this way: “The Fukang pallasite displays celestial yellow-green olivine crystals in an illustrious nickel-iron matrix. Backlit slices from the Fukang mass are reminiscent of stained glass windows crafted in the ancient solar system.”

Here is a YouTube video about the University of Arizona’s investigations into the Fukang Meteorite:

Fukang meteorite at auction

Collectors are eager to acquire slices of the Fukang Meteorite. In February 2020, you could purchase 16.7-gram and 17.8-gram fragments of the Fukang Meteorite for $584.50 or $623.00 on meteorites-for-sale.com. Smaller pieces are out of stock. In the market for something a little bigger?

In April 2008, Bonhams auction house placed a 420-kilogram mass of the Fukang meteorite up for auction. It was marketed as “The World’s Most Spectacular Meteorite — A Magnificent Space Gem Discovery.” It was cut and polished to display a 36-inch by 19-inch window into its olivine-metal matrix.

Auction and meteorite watchers anticipated the main mass of the Fukang Meteorite would receive bids in the range of $2,000,000. One online curator and auction aggregator listed the Fukang Meteorite as number one in “Top 10 Most Expensive Meteorites Ever Offered up on Earth.”

Unfortunately, no bids came at Bonhams’ attempt to sell the Fukang. At the same auction, two pieces of 130,000,000-year-old dinosaur dung (aka coprolite) sold for $960.

The most noteworthy observation of the macroscopic specimen is its enormous mass and the presence of large olivine “clusters” heterogeneously distributed throughout the entire specimen.

In July 2019, a 2.5-inch by 2.5-inch by 1.66-inch block of the Fukang Meteorite was offered in “The Moon and Beyond: Meteorites from the Stifler Collection,” an online auction, with an estimate of between $25,000 and $35,000.

The value of the Fukang meteorite comes from its rarity — Pallisates are true minorities amongst the meteorite classes — and beauty. It’s not really a function of size.

The Fukang Meteorite was not one of Earth’s “Top 10 Greatest Hits.” New Scientist compiled a list of the six largest meteorites to strike Earth: Tunguska in 1908 in Siberia; Chelyabinsk in 2013 in Russia; Chicxulub (the dinosaur killer); Vredefort Dome in South Africa two billion years ago; Morokweng in South Africa, found in the 1990s; and Alan Hills 84001 in Antarctica, now the oldest piece of Mars on Earth.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Some meteors arrive with a flourish worth watching; thankfully, not every meteor arrives with a “bang.”

Comets are meteorites are long-lost stellar cousins. How closely related the Fukang Meteorite and Borisov are, we’ll never know.

Wanna be famous? Discover a meteor or comet. Here’s how. Well, here’s one story of how it happened anyway.