Hunt begins for Britain's elusive stones from space

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The Independent Online

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it perhaps a great big bundle of cash? If it is a meteorite that fell through the sky and landed in your back garden, it could well turn out to be the last, and this week you will be given a few handy tips on how to find it.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it perhaps a great big bundle of cash? If it is a meteorite that fell through the sky and landed in your back garden, it could well turn out to be the last, and this week you will be given a few handy tips on how to find it.

The Great British Meteorite Hunt starts today, a cross-country quest to find the elusive space rocks, which can be worth thousands of pounds. Each year, more than 30 meteorites are thought to fall on British soil, yet only 20 have been found, and scientists believe there must be thousands more waiting to be discovered.

A new BBC 2 and Open University astronomy series, Stardate, will show successful meteorite prospectors in a programme in September. A website called www.Open2. net/astronomy offers tips on where to look and how to recognise a space rock. Organisers hope thousands of people will join the hunt.

The scientific value of meteorites which may be billions of years old is enormous. "These are the oldest objects you can handle," said Richard Greenwood, the Open University's meteorite curator. "They tell us about the formation of the solar system and the stars that lived and died before the solar system formed."

But the manna-from-heaven aspect may be the biggest encouragement to searchers, because a discovery can makethem rich. Meteorites can be worth from £20, to many thousands, depending on their weight,composition, appearance, and origin.

In 2000, Gary Wennihan, an American farmer, found an unusual rock weighing a little over 4lbs (2kgs) in his field of soya beans in Fairfax, Missouri. It is, in fact, a rare meteorite that could be worth up to $1m (£550,000). Many meteorites are sought by private collectors, with those from Mars - chunks of rock blown into space by asteroids or comets- among the most valuable. Others fetching a good price are linked to historical stories about how they fell and were discovered.

"Collecting meteorites is certainly one of the most unusual hobbies," said Rob Elliott, Britain's leading meteorite dealer, based in Fife. "But holding a piece of four-and-half-billion-year-old space rock in your hand can really stir the imagination with a sense of awe and wonderment."

Meteorites have been found in Middlesbrough, Wold Cottage, Appley Bridge, Rowton, Barwell, Glatton, Aldsworth, Ashdon, Launton, Hatford, Danebury and Stretchleigh in England; in Glenrothes, Strathmore, Perth and High Possil in Scotland; in Pontlyfni and Beddgelert in Wales; and in Bovedy and Crumlin in Northern Ireland.

Dr Greenwood said. "You could look where other meteorites have been found, because, statistically, there is a higher chance of finding others, or, if you seek something unique, search in a place where none has been found.

Under UK law, a small sample of the meteorite - 20 per cent of the total mass, or 20gms, whichever is the smaller - must be donated to an institution. The rest is owned by the finder, and/or landowner.

HOW TO SPOT A METEORITE

Meteorites are stones from space. There are three main kinds: stoney, iron, and stoney-iron. Most are thought to be small pieces of asteroids, though some may be from the heads of comets.

Rare ones have come from other planets, especially the Moon and Mars. Falls that are witnessed yield higher-value meteorites, no matter what classification.

Meteorites can be travelling at 150,000 mph in space and most break up in the upper atmosphere. About 100 tons of meteorites get through to land on Earth every day, but nearly all are dust-sized grains that nobody notices.

Two-thirds of the Earth is ocean, so most sink. The best place to find meteorites is the Antarctic: the dark rocks can be spotted more easily on the white ice. Only 20 or 30 new meteorite falls are found every year. Large ones, bigger than an egg, are scarce. They are often not recognised at first, and been used as blacksmith anvils, dog bowls, or to prop up machinery or cars.

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