Fireball meteorite found in British driveway

A very rare space rock that caused a celestial light show at the end of February has been recovered in the UK
15 March 2021

Interview with 

Mary McIntyre, UK Meteor Observation Network


A shooting star


On the final day of February, people in some parts of the UK were treated to a celestial light show as a meteor streaked in from space. Hundreds of videos of the fireball have since been posted online by amateur photographers. What’s even more special is that by analysing the footage caught on multiple networks of cameras, for the first time in three decades in the UK, the culprit - and as it turns out very rare - space rock was successfully tracked down and recovered from someone’s driveway! Phil Sansom spoke to the UK Meteor Observation Network’s Mary McIntyre to hear how it happened...

Mary - There was a really bright fireball picked up across multiple networks a week ago on Sunday. And later in the week, we found out that a meteorite had in fact been recovered. And this is an incredibly rare thing to happen in the UK, actually even in the world, to recover a meteorite that's been seen as a fireball is quite rare. Then we found out that it's one of an extremely rare kind of meteorite. So just so many special things. And we've all just haven't been able to sleep because we were just so excited and such a huge win for citizen science. It really was.

Phil - Wow. And you didn't even know it was coming, did you? It just sort of appeared as a flash, right?

Mary - Yeah. These things, you can't predict them. They're entirely random pieces of space debris. And this one was really unusual because it was captured by so many cameras across the UK because we had a clear sky across the country.

Phil - What does it look like? Is it just a bright - the whole sky lights up? Or is there like an angle that you can see? And that's how you figure out where it's going.

Mary - It depends where you see it from. So our camera, so it was heading straight for us. So actually on our camera, there was just an enormous flash and it was really difficult to get any data from it because you couldn't see a flight path. But there's a guy called Richard Fleet down in Wiltshire who caught it side on. And it is the most phenomenal kind of bright thing streaking across the sky that just resulted in this enormous kind of explosion. And it fragmented. We could see that there were multiple fragments there. And once you kind of do the calculations behind the scenes, they can figure out the speeds it was moving [at], the angle through the atmosphere, its exact path before it burned up. And once you do all of that, then you can also figure out the mass. And once you know the mass, you can then calculate whether something may have survived and landed.

Normally something like that would be kind of kept quiet for fear of contamination, but because of Covid and the fact that the area that they think it landed in was basically lots of farmland in the Cotswolds, none of us actually thought for a second that this would get recovered. And if it was recovered, not for many days when it had been rained on and all of that stuff. So it was, it was just incredible.

Phil - It could have gone in a stream, I'm guessing? It could have gone in, I dunno, a sheep's trough and sheep ate it.

Mary - Well, many fireballs in the UK are thought to survive but they end up in the sea, because the UK is quite a small island.

Phil - So who actually found it and how?

Mary - One of the homeowners had actually heard a thud on their drive the previous night, rather than the house. And they just didn't think anything of it. But once the Natural History Museum put out a video to locals saying, "if you see anything, please have a look". And they went out and there was a fragment and some dust and kind of black rays on their driveway. And I think a fragment bounced over the wall to next door's garden. Once people arrived on the scene from Wednesday onwards, there was like a fingertip search of the area and more fragments have been found. And we've now found about 400 grams of this, which is just extraordinary.

Mary - You said that not only was it amazing space rock, it's also a very special kind of space rock?

Mary - It is. It's a type of meteorite called a carbonaceous chondrite. And they're really important because most of them originate from the asteroid belt. And I mean, asteroids themselves are really old because they're leftover material from when the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. But what's amazing about carbonaceous chondrites is they have these tiny little spheres of material that actually predates our solar system. Some of them have organic materials like amino acids in them. And to get a sample that is really pristine like this is incredibly rare, and so important for scientists to kind of analyse the material and find out the origins of our solar system. And before our solar system! It's just been one of the most amazing stories of the decade. And there hasn't been a fall that's been found for 30 years in the UK. So, wow. It's amazing.

Phil - And what's funny as well is - aren't there missions going on right now, sending probes up to asteroids way out in space, desperate to try to get any sort of sample from them? And we've just had one land right at our doorstep!

Mary - It is. Well, there was actually a mission to the asteroid Ryugu. And the quality of this sample is comparable with that sample return mission from Ryugu. And they brought back like tiny amounts of the asteroid. And we've now got 400 grams of this! I mean, you can't rely on them landing as a way of analysing them because it just doesn't happen very often. Meteorites are found all the time, but they've been led on the ground for who knows how long. And I just, I still can't quite believe it's real. I just, honestly, when I found out I just cried because it's such an amazing story. Astronomy gets me like that.


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