A fireball, a driveway and a priceless meteorite

Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent
@BBCAmoson Twitter

Published
Image source, Rob Wilcock
Image caption,
Hannah, Rob and Cathryn are celebrating an extraordinary find

"We're still pinching ourselves - to believe that this actually happened on our drive!"

Rob Wilcock, his wife Cathryn and daughter Hannah are astounded to find themselves at the centre of a major scientific discovery.

It was their property in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, that was hit by the most valuable space rock ever to fall on the UK.

The meteorite has had British scientists in raptures of joy.

It's a carbonaceous chondrite - a dark stony material that retains unaltered chemistry from the formation of our Solar System 4.6 billion years ago, and, as such, could give us fresh insights on how the planets came into being.

The first thing the Wilcock family knew about it was when they heard a dull thud outside their house on the night of Sunday 28 February.

"When I heard it drop, I stood up and looked out the window to see what was there," recalled Hannah. "But because it was dark I couldn't see anything.

"It was only the next morning when we went out that we saw it on the drive - a bit like a kind of splatter. And in all honesty, my original thought was - has someone been driving around the Cotswolds lobbing lumps of coal into people's gardens?" she told BBC News.

"Either that or someone had upturned a barbecue tray," chimed in Cathryn.

Scientists knew fragments of a meteorite must be in the Gloucestershire area. Their cameras had recorded the rock coming through the atmosphere that Sunday night, creating a huge fireball in the process.

Media caption,
"It blows your mind": The people of Winchcombe react to the meteorite discovery

Imagery from multiple angles allowed researchers to narrow the drop zone, and when they went on the media to make an appeal on the Monday, they hoped one or two people might come forward with an interesting find.

In fact, they were inundated with pictures. Most had nothing to do with meteorites, but when Open University planetary scientist Richard Greenwood looked at the Wilcocks' picture, he was blown away.

"It was one of those moments when your legs start going wobbly. I saw this thing; it was like a splat across [the Wilcocks'] drive; and it had all these rays coming off it; and I just thought - that is a meteorite. It was instantaneous," he said.

With all the hullabaloo that was bound to follow the discovery, Rob's initial reaction was to try to stay out of the limelight - to be anonymous.

But when he thought it through a little more, Rob said the three of them recognised they should talk about what had happened to them.

"We've been wrestling with the question of whether we should talk about it, and in the end we decided we should. There seems to be such a lot of genuine public interest in the find," Rob told BBC News.

Media caption,
Thousands of people reported seeing the fireball

"We're absolutely thrilled that something that's going to be so valuable to science, to the human understanding of the world and of the Solar System has happened, and that we can be a small part in it."

The family have donated the meteorite remains to the national collection held by the Natural History Museum in London. They were determined the rock should not go to a dealer, but to science.

The last meteorite fall to be picked up in the UK was 30 years ago. That was an "ordinary chondrite" - a common type of space rock.

The Winchcombe meteorite is far more valuable. Studying its chemistry - and what it can tell us about the conditions that went into building the planets - will keep scientists busy for years.

As for the small Gloucestershire market town - it's now firmly on the map.

"We always felt that the Cotswolds is a wonderful place to live. But now the whole world seems to know about us," reflected one local resident on Tuesday afternoon.

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