Meteor sparks hunt to find 'secrets from birth of the Earth'

The sight of a flaming meteor shooting across the night sky – and sparking fears a passenger aircraft was about to crash – has kicked off a treasure hunt for secrets about the birth of the Earth.

Astronomers are desperate to track down the remnants of the meteor which was witnessed from the north of Scotland to the south of England as it entered the Earth's atmosphere.

It is thought to have been travelling at up to 90,000 miles per hour and could have been anything from the size of a football to a family car. It was described as burning orange with a green tail.

Police in several counties fielded a barrage of calls reporting a bright light in the sky from members of the public who feared an aircraft was on fire but, with no planes unaccounted for, they were attributed to the meteorite.

Most meteors burn up completely when they hit the Earth's atmosphere, but the space rock that was seen in flames over Britain on Saturday night at about 9.40pm was big enough for some of it to have survived long enough to reach the surface.

Any lumps recovered could literally be worth more than their weight in gold, said Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and contain debris left over from the birth of Earth and the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

Skywatchers who witnessed the meteor fall are being urged by scientists to help them calculate where it would have landed and what part of the solar system it came from.

Reporting each sighting to astronomy websites will help researchers calculate the trajectory. Video and mobile phone recordings are particularly valuable because they help establish its size, speed and height.