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A Mystery Meteorite From the House of Sting

13 February 2012 2:01 pm
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The Open University

Space odyssey. A huge meteorite from Sting’s front yard is now on display in London.

When the English musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler bought the Lake House estate in the United Kingdom's rural Wiltshire in the early 1990s, they got a lot for their money: A beautiful 16th century home and 26 hectares of land on the River Avon, just a stone's throw from Stonehenge. The house has been featured in Architectural Digest, and Styler was inspired by the idyllic farm setting to write The Lake House Cookbook.

But there's one thing Sting and Trudie didn't get when they moved in: a 93 kilogram meteorite that had sat near the front door for at least 80 years. Just before the sale, the Bailey family (descendants of a noted lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Artillery and his aristocrat wife), from whom Sting bought the house, loaned the meteorite to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, where it sat in storage for most of the past 2 decades. But between now and 30 March, the meteorite is on display at the Royal Society in London, thanks to the efforts of a meteorite expert who has recently been studying it. And this fall, it will go on display at Wiltshire's Salisbury Museum, where many of the artifacts found at Stonehenge are now housed and where thousands of visitors flock each year.

When the meteorite landed, some 30,000 years ago, in what would later become Sting's front yard, it traveled directly from outer space. But for the last 20 years, it has been moved from place to place, entirely out of public view. Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K., and curator of the Royal Society exhibit, explains that NHM meteorite curators were skeptical about the rock's importance and where it had originally come from. They eventually put it in a storehouse some miles from the museum. There it languored, Pillinger says, "unloved and forgotten," until about 2 years ago.

But then, Pillinger and his colleagues, while studying a much smaller meteorite found in the 1970s at Danebury hill fort in Hampshire County—about 20 kilometers from Lake House—began wondering if the two meteorites were part of the same original object. So they hauled the Lake House meteorite out of storage and began studying it. It turned out that the two objects were chemically different, but both rocks, which were apparently preserved intact by the glaciers that once covered Britain, could provide important information about the region's ice age history and the nature of its inanimate visitors from space, Pillinger says.

And now the Lake House meteorite will be kept from public eyes no longer. Adrian Green, director of the Salisbury Museum where the meteorite will go on display, says that the details are still being worked out with its owners, the Bailey family, but that the huge rock should be there for a "long-term loan."

Meanwhile, if you are in London anytime between now and 30 March, you can see the two meteorites—plus a piece of Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree that was taken into space by a British astronaut in 2010—in the Royal Society's Objects in Space exhibit.

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