10 Feb 2012

Professor Colin Pillinger curates Objects in Space exhibition

What do a 93kg lump of rock, Damien Hirst’s artwork and Newton’s apple tree have in common? They’ve all been associated with space missions and now part of Objects in Space, curated by Professor Colin Pillinger, at the Royal Society.

Objects in Space showcases what is believed to be Britain’s largest meteorite. It has never before been seen in public. It is also the British sample which has spent the longest time on Earth - over 30,000 years. This huge specimen was found at Lake House, a country mansion in Wiltshire, where it resided for the most of the last century. It weighs 93kg, about the same as a baby elephant, and forms the centrepiece of an eclectic new exhibition exploring the fascinating history behind UK scientists’ interest in meteorites.

The second meteorite on display is considerably smaller, originally weighing just 32g – about the size and shape of a walnut. Discovered in the 1970s at Danebury Hill, the Iron Age Fort in Hampshire, it was originally thought to be a metal artefact dating from 2-3000 years ago when the Archaeological site was occupied by Ancient Britons. It was only realised in the 1980s it was a meteorite when the metal was analysed and found to be extraterrestrial. It was put aside for further research, but mislaid for a number of years, before reappearing and brought to The Open University.

Interestingly, Lake House and Danebury Hill are only 20 kilometres apart and originally it was thought that the samples might be related. The bigger rock however had been on Earth at least ten times longer than the small one. It spent a century near the door step of the house but no one could say who put it there. The detective work to find out has involved Country Life magazine, the inventor of the spark plug, a brewer and a Vicar fascinated by the Druids of Stonehenge.

Large photographic images made at The Open University, enabling CEPSAR (Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space & Astronomical Research) researchers to uncover the origins of rocks from space, form part of the exhibition, together with letters and books charting the history of Britain’s scientific interest in meteorites. Also on show are one of Damien Hirst’s famous Spot paintings and a fragment of the apple tree under which Newton is said to have discovered gravity; the latter was taken into space aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Planetary and Space Sciences Professor Colin Pillinger FRS, who has curated the exhibition with The Royal Society’s Archivist Keith Moore, said: “I’m delighted that people are getting a chance to see two unique British meteorites. This is definitely the only place in the world where people can see a rock that came to us from space 30,000 years ago, a Damien Hirst painting and part of Newton’s apple tree side by side. I think visitors will really enjoy the opportunity to come face to face with these fantastic objects and find out more about how scientists investigate their origins”.

Objects in Space runs until the end of March. For details, please see link right.

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