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Pennies from heaven

Chicken Little was convinced that the sky was falling. But as geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers, it was meteorites what done it!

Geoscientist 20.03 April 2011

Meteorites have been a source of wonder since ancient times, but it wasn’t until the last century that they have conferred much in the way of financial benefit on their finders. Even common meteorites can confer great riches on their finders. For example, Michelle Knapp, a teenager from Peekskill, Westchester County, New York earned big bucks after a 12.4 kg chunk of the very well documented Peekskill meteorite landed on the nearside rear corner of her 12 year-old Chevy Malibu sedan at around 8 PM on the 9th of October 1992. Meteorite and car were bought by collectors for a whopping $78,000. The car has since been exhibited around the world.

But unfortunately not everyone subjected to a close encounter has been so lucky. On Christmas Eve in 1965 when the bonnet of Percy England’s car was struck by a fragment of the Barwell (Leicestershire) meteorite – the largest meteorite fall ever recorded in the UK – he first attributed the damage to vandals. Mr England was less than elated to discover that the real culprit was a meteorite. Vandalism was covered by his insurance – meteorite damage was an act of God, and not. (Sadly for this tale, the meteorite in question was not a car-bonnet-ite.)

For Ann Hodges, the consequences were more serious. On 30 November 1954 she was struck by a meteorite weighing almost four kilograms when it crashed through the roof of her rented house in Sylacauga, Alabama. The strike left her badly bruised – and set off an unfortunate chain of events that changed her life forever. Firstly, she discovered that under US law, which assigns ownership of meteorites to the owner of the land on which it falls, her landlord was deemed the legal owner of the meteorite. After losing a lengthy legal battle, she and her husband decided to buy the meteorite for $500, hoping to cash in. But by the time the deal was done, interest had evaporated. The disappointment led to the break-up of her marriage. Mrs Hodges became an invalid and died at 52. In her case, being singled out by the heavens did not – alas – lead to worldly fortune.


These – and other - tales of meteor strikes appear in the newly published book: Incoming: or why we should stop worrying and learn to love the meteorite , by Ted Nield (ISBN 9781847082411), published by Granta in 2011, £20.00.
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* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.