Meteorite reveals its cosmic history: Richard Smith and Susan Watts report on an operation to divide a chunk of space debris among five European museums

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The Independent Online
ENGINEERS in Worcestershire yesterday took a heavy-duty bandsaw to a rare piece of space debris - a chunk of meteorite which is believed to be 4.6 billion years old.

Their mission was to chop the rusty brown rock into five thick slices, one each for those museums which have paid for a chunk. The size of the slice will be in direct proportion to the sum the museum has paid.

Dr Robert Hutchison, head of cosmic minerology at the Natural History Museum in London, set up the deal last year. 'I have worked in the museum for 25 years and this is one of the most exciting days I have experienced. I am delighted with the way the cutting has gone so far. The interior is not rusted - it's fresh iron nickel with other minerals and there is plenty for us to work on.'

The rock, about the size of a small dog, formed part of a nine- ton meteorite which showered down on fields in Nantan county in the Chinese province of Guangxi in prehistoric times. It was only discovered by scientists in 1958.

The Natural History Museum recently paid the Guilin College of Geology in China dollars 20,000 ( pounds 13,800) for a quarter-ton lump to be shared between itself and four other European museums - natural history museums in Paris and Vienna, the Mineralogical Museum in Copenhagen and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

It is the first joint purchase of a meteorite by European museums since 1880. The Chinese are said to have been keen to sell in order to gain foreign currency.

The 70cm long rock arrived at the factory in Redditch by van, packed inside a wooden crate. Engineers lifted it by crane and fork-lift truck and encased it in surgical plaster before the process of slicing began.

Dr Hutchison said that the meteorite's scientific value was priceless. 'It will add another few pieces to the jigsaw about events that led to the formation of the Sun and the planets. This meteorite was floating around in space around the time the universe began and . . . will give us an insight into what the interiors of planets are made from.'

He said that it must have been a very exciting event when the meteorite fell to earth, scattering debris over an area of 30sq km (16sq miles). 'If the sky was clear there would have been a brilliant fireball. If it had occurred in daylight this would have been brighter than the midday sun and accompanied by a sonic boom. Chunks of metal one tonne in weight and several metres in diameter would have rained out of the sky. The meteorite would have broken up when it came through the atmosphere.'

The Nantan meteorite is part of the rare IIICD group of iron meteorites - only 16 of which are known to exist. Members of this group are unusual because the iron and stony material from which they are formed never completely melted.

Only one iron meteorite has ever fallen in Britain. This was the size of a fist and landed at Rowton in Shropshire in 1876.

The Natural History Museum spent two months searching for a firm to cut up the Nantan meteorite before Accurate Cutting Services agreed to do the job.

The team hoped to complete the operation last night. Britain's chunk is due to go on show at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)