Thursday, 31 December 2015

Meteorite shower turns Turkish village rich overnight

Sarıçiçek villager holds pieces of Howardite meteorite. Photo: Yeni Şafak

When a 230kg meteoroid exploded and fell on small mountain village in eastern Turkey in the autumn, few could have imagined the wealth it would generate for its 3,200 residents.

Long caught up in the crossfire between Kurdish PKK militants and the Turkish army, Sarıçiçek villagers assumed the explosion they heard around midnight on September 2nd and the illuminated sky was as a result of the recently resumed conflict. When small pieces of debris started to rain down on them, they thought it was just shrapnel from another rocket attack.

On closer inspection, shopkeeper Mehmet Nezir Ergün realised the black rocks that had littered his garden were in fact pieces of meteorite. He informed officials at nearby Bingöl University, who sent over a team of scientists. Confirming Ergün’s discovery, the university’s Prof. İskender Demirkol then notified NASA, the Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Agency, and his academic colleagues in Istanbul University.

Dr. Ozan Ünsalan, a leading lecturer from Istanbul University’s Physics Department, said Sarıçiçek’s meteorite shower was extremely rare – it was only the 21st such event to be recorded in the world. He and fellow scientists concluded that the meteorite originated from Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the solar system that had first been observed by a NASA spacecraft in 2007.

A modern day gold rush
Sarıçiçek villagers on the hunt for outer space treasure. Photos: Samsun Kent Haber
Of greater interest for the villagers was when researchers determined the meteorite was of the precious Howardite variety. A single gram of this glistening grainy rock, which contains up to 60 different elements including titanium and uranium, can fetch £40 on the open market.

As details of the discovery seeped out, dealers from around the world descended on Sarıçiçek, prompting a modern day gold rush. Every man, woman and child in the village was out in search of this outer space treasure to sell to collectors, some finding pieces as large as 4-5 kilos.

Their commercial savviness has captured global media attention. Over the past few weeks, they have reported on how Sarıçiçek turned rich overnight, with villagers making an estimated £1 million from meteorite sales, allowing many to splash out on new homes and cars in time for the New Year.

To tax or not tax a ‘divine gift’?
The news also caught the eye of the Turkish Treasury, who wanted to tax the villagers on their sudden good fortune. When officers from the Bingöl Tax Office came to the village, many were upset that their divine gift was liable to a financial levy. The Turkish public agreed.
Turkey's deputy PM Mehmet Şimşek asked the public whether
the govt. should tax the Sarıçiçek villagers  
In a smart PR move, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek decided to test public opinion via Twitter. When he asked ‘whether the Sarıçiçek, villagers be taxed on the profits they made from selling meteorites?’ 28% of the 34,037 people who responded said yes, while a whopping 72% said no. Şimşek then announced the villagers “will not be taxed because their profits are not of continuous nature.”

The government's decision added to the festive spirit in the village, who have also gone down in meteoritic history. The International Astronomical Union broke with usual custom to name the September meteorite shower after the village: henceforth known as the Sarıçiçek Meteor.

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