The Day A Small Victorian Town Was Rocked By A Meteorite

Stardust that is older than our solar system has been found inside a meteorite that rocked a small Aussie town, and the residents who live there love that they’re part of the legend of a space rock that fell to Earth.

The Murchison meteorite fell into the village, about 167km north of Melbourne, on September 28, 1969.

President of the Murchison Historical Society Kay Ball said the space rock landed on a quiet Sunday morning and send shockwaves through the air -- but no one knew why.

"It was like 'boom boom boom' ... everyone was thinking 'what is that noise?'" Ball told 10 daily.

The meteorite was moving too fast to be seen by the naked eye. It was estimated to have been travelling at 13km per second when it hit the ground. She said the rock's impact left a white 'fluffy' trail in the sky and blanketed the area with a tar-like smell.

Ball said residents worried at the time that it might be 'aliens'.

"There were various suggestions at the time, a plane crash or spaceships fighting ... or maybe we'd see some aliens," Ball said.

The village of Murchison, Victoria has a population of about 900 people. Image: Google

Just Dung It

After the meteorite crashed, it was up to scientists to find enough rock fragments to piece together the puzzle.

Then university student Andy Gleadow was sent to Murchison to help.

His team were told that a local dairy farmer had found a cattle loading ramp covered in the coal-like rock.

Unfortunately for Gleadow, Ball said the farmer "flushed it all into a manure pit" as "he didn't know what it was".

Dust-rich outflows of evolved stars similar to the pictured Egg Nebula are thought to be sources of the presolar grains found in meteorites. Image: NASA / Janaína N. Ávila

"Until the scientists came and told people it was a rare type of meteorite, people were a little bit wary of touching it because of the smell."

Ball said the farmer took a piece of the rock to the Shepparton newspaper to get some answers and from there scientists and university researchers came to investigate.

Gleadow, who went on to become one of Australia's leading experts in geology, was one of two students who were tasked with sifting through the cow manure pit to fish out the pieces of the meteorite.

Fifty years later, Professor Gleadow (AO) said he was thankful the dairy farmer had given him a pair of gumboots to wade through the dung pile.

"It was a few inches deep and we spent a few happy hours sifting through cow pat," he said.

"We got it out (but) when you washed them they still reeked of manure."

Gleadow's story has become the anecdote the people of Murchison like to tell when they reflect on the time the meteorite hit.

The Rock Rush

Hundreds of pieces meteorite were collected by the townspeople, the biggest being a 6.8kg chunk. The Gillick family found the most fragments, finding almost one-third of the 100kg collected and weighed.

Peter Gillick, son of the local postmaster, looks at fragments of the meteorite. Image:  Murchison and District Historical Society Collection

While some locals held on to pieces, most ended up at universities and museums around the world to be studied.

Many scientists have returned to Murchison over the years and kept the town updated on the treasure trove of findings that relate to the meteorite.

"People are always studying the meteorite, and at least once a year there is a significant finding published," Ball said.

The latest finding was made by researchers at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, who discovered stardust on the meteorite that is estimated to date back seven billion years.

That would make it the oldest solid material ever found on Earth.

The Murchison meteorite. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

Field Museum curator Philipp Heck said it was "one of the most exciting studies" he had been a part of.

“These are the oldest solid materials ever found, and they tell us about how stars formed in our galaxy," he said in a statement.

The meteorite that fell to Murchison is estimated to be seven billion years old -- older than the Earth (4.5 billion years) and the Sun (4.6 billion years).



The Hunt Is On For The Meteor That Lit Up The Sky

Scientists are hopeful the fireball survived the atmosphere and made it to Earth.

Heck and his team studied presolar grains -- minerals that had formed before the Sun was created -- found on the meteorite.

“They’re solid samples of stars, real stardust,” Heck claimed.

The grains became trapped in the meteorite and remained "unchanged" for billions of years, the museum said, adding it is found in about five per cent of meteorites that fall to Earth.

When found, researchers can date presolar grains and find out what type of stars they come from.

Philipp Heck studying the meteorite and stardust. Image: Murchison and District Historical Society Collection

The field museum has the largest collection of Murchison meteorite fragments in the world because at the time it was the best-equipped to study it.

The meteorite fell to Earth just months after the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the museum had been set up to analyse moon dust.

The museum sent three pieces to the Murchison Historical Society so some of it could be seen closer to home.

"We have an outer crust, a cut section littered with chondrites containing amazing organic material and then another with a burnt, smooth surface," Ball said.



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Talk Of The Town

The day the meteorite hit changed the way the world spoke about Murchison forever.

"It caused quite a stir," Ball said.

Last year, the town celebrated the 50th anniversary and scientists, including Heck and Gleadow, reflected on the findings the meteorite has offered so far.

A stamp released by Australia Post to mark 50 years since the Murchison meteorite hit. Image: Australia Post

Australia Post even commemorated the event with a $1 postage stamp.

Fifty years later, the pungent odour described by Andy Gleadow can still be smelt on pieces of the meteorite that have been kept in airtight containers.