At 9 o’clock in the morning on September 10th, 1813, loud bangs were heard over County Limerick in Ireland. A shower of meteorites had brought to Earth more than 48 kilograms of rock from space. More specifically, it had come from the asteroid belt, a band of rocky debris that orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Collisions in space can knock asteroids out of their orbit, and occasionally send them hurtling on an impact path with Earth. Small fragments burn up in the atmosphere, and we see them as meteors or ‘shooting stars’. Larger pieces will reach the Earth’s surface, and we call these meteorites.
The asteroid that fell over County Limerick broke into three large meteorites and several smaller ones. At the Museum we have the second largest piece, weighing nearly 8.5 kilograms, which landed near the village of Faha on the estates of the Blakeney family. The Rev Robert Blakeney was an Oxford graduate whose ministry was in the parish of South Elm in Somerset. Perhaps after his death, the meteorite was found in the rectory, for it was the new rector’s younger brother, the Rev John W. Griffith, who presented it to the University of Oxford in 1825.
The outer crust of the Limerick meteorite is smooth and dark where it melted as it fell through the atmosphere. Inside, it is a pale grey rock with flecks of nickel iron alloy and with tiny rounded crystalline grains called chondrules. They show it belongs to a class of stony meteorites called ‘chondrites’. At around 4.55 billion years old, chondrite meteorites are some of the oldest materials in the Solar System. They give researchers important clues about how the planets – including the Earth – originally formed.