Back at the end of July two cricket fans were enjoying a pint watching Sussex play Middlesex at Uxbridge when they spotted a rock hurtling towards them. It hit the ground close by, fragmented and a portion bounced up and hit one of these startled witnesses in the chest.
The story rapidly gained wide coverage. It was suggested that the event was a meteorite fall. The first in the UK for nearly twenty years. It was even reported that the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore had been on the phone to the witnesses.
It all sounded very exciting. But then Dave Harris of the British and Irish Meteorite Society examined the rock and identified it as “nothing more than a piece of Portland cement with flecks of brick dust and flint in it.” How it came to be hurtling in the direction of the two spectators is, of course, a mystery.
So, the story that started out as a possible extraterrestrial encounter, ended up as an amusing piece of summer fun. The cricket spectators at the centre of things might have felt just a little bit embarrassed by all the fuss. One is reported as saying, “I had never seen a meteorite before so didn’t know what one looked like”. He also said, “I am disappointed but in some ways I am glad it’s over and we now know what it is”.
Here at The Open University, I often get sent samples which people think might be meteorites. The reaction when you tell them that they are materials from this planet, and not from space, is similar to that of the disappointed cricket fans. It is generally disappointment, tinged with a streak of embarrassment. Sometimes people even apologise for wasting my time. These may be understandable reactions, but they are very misplaced. Here’s why.
On a worldwide scale, the recovery of material from a witnessed meteorite fall remains a rare event (about 5 to 6 per year). In the British Isles samples from a freshly fallen meteorite are only recovered once every 10 to 20 years.
So, if we are going to recover new meteorites in the UK, we need the help of vigilant members of the general public. Don’t get embarrassed, just keep sending in those samples. We are always happy to study potential space rocks. It is going to take a lot of false leads before we identify the real thing. But when that new space rock turns up, it is going to be worth it. And turn up it will.