He found the famous Hambleton meteorite and with Rob Elliot back in Yorkshire, Sarah Freeman meets the man who makes a living out of space debris.
STANDING on a mound in the middle of the Yorkshire Wolds as the wind begins to pick up and black clouds gather on the horizon, heralding yet another downpour, any glamour which comes with being the country’s only professional meteorite hunter quickly disappears.
Rob Elliot, however, is used to battling against inclement conditions. It comes with the job and besides, his discoveries can bring their own rewards. The rarest examples can fetch upwards of £100,000 and Scottish-born Elliot has a pretty impressive track record of hunting out the most sought after specimens.
Each year hundreds of meteorites fall on British soil, but pinpointing the exact landing spot is notoriously tricky. Only a handful of significant meteorites have ever been found in this country and Elliot is responsible for unearthing four of them.
On one of his last visits to Yorkshire he stumbled across the now famous Hambleton Meteorite. Exploring an area near the White Horse of Kilburn, Elliot, who is reluctant to divulge specific details of location, happened upon what he describes a “big, ugly ball of rust”.
It might not have been particularly aesthetically pleasing, but the rock turned out to be a very rare class of what scientists call pallasite. Containing semi-precious gem stones, the discovery sent more than a minor ripple through the astronomical world and at 43lbs, it remains the second largest meteorite ever found in the UK.
“It smelled pretty bad because of the sulphur, and when I took it home I had to put it out in the back garden,” says Elliot. “However, even then I had a hunch it was something pretty special. When I took it to be analysed, initial tests showed it contained large amounts of nickel, which is always a good sign. As it turned out, it was even better than I had expected.
“Britain may not be awash with meteorites, but when you find something like that it’s a pretty good impetus to get back out there.”
The Hambleton discovery was in 2005, but Elliot has been back in Yorkshire recently partly to film a pilot for what he hopes will become a TV series for the Discovery channel and partly to retrace his steps of eight years ago in the hope of finding another lucrative piece of space rock.
However, while selling meteorites to other collectors – his customers have included Michael Jackson, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May and Uri Geller – has become a full-time job, it’s more than just a way to earn a living.
“My passion for all things (to do with) space began when I was eight years old, just as Apollo 11 was preparing to land on the Moon,” he says. “My family was living in the suburbs of London at the time, and the bright street lights made viewing the night sky pretty difficult, but it didn’t matter. I was just really fascinated by comets and meteorites.
“In the mid 1990s I saw an advert in the back of an astronomy magazine offering meteorites found in the Namibian desert for sale. Half of me thought it was a scam and I sent off my £40 fully expecting never to see it again. But a few weeks later a little piece of rock landed in my letter box.
“To think you can hold in your hand a small piece of space history is just an incredible feeling. From that moment I think there was probably no looking back.”
Working as a defence engineer for Trident, Elliot soon found he was spending much of his disposable income on meteorites and with his collection outgrowing his home in Fife, 15 or so years ago he decided to give up his job and become a full-time meteorite hunter and dealer.
“It suddenly struck me that some of the big meteorite dealers were doing pretty well out of people like me,” he says. “I decided that if I became one of the middlemen I could keep some of my collection, but also make a bit of money back.”
Fast forward to today and Elliot has become one of the world’s leading experts on meteorites. He has travelled the world in his search for space rock and constantly has his radar on alert for possible new falls.
“I can go at a moment’s notice,” he says. “Meteorites fall to Earth all the time, but most go completely unnoticed. If you get various reports of people saying they saw a massive fireball in the sky which they believe fell in a particular place, then of course it’s worth investigating, but more often than not you need a bit of luck on your side.
“The great thing is that anyone can do it, you really don’t need sophisticated equipment to be a meteorite hunter. I’ve obviously invested in metal detectors and I have a Land Rover so I can go off the beaten track, but all you really need is a cut-off golf club with a very strong magnet attached to the end.
“The minerals within the meteorites often contain iron metals and so while you’ll probably find a lot of ring pulls and tin cans, if you get lucky, you could just find a piece of space rock.
“If meteorites have fallen recently they look as though they have been painted black, it’s what’s known as a fusion crust. All the interesting stuff is inside – that’s where you’ll see the tiny flakes of metal glittering.”
Arizona has proved particularly fruitful for Elliot, but he’s foregone the heat of the American desert to film his new TV series, along with fellow collector Gregory Wilson, who flew in from his home in Hawaii to accompany Elliott on his meteorite trail around Britain.
It’s partly serious science programme and partly a look at the folklore which has grown up around historic meteorite falls like the one which landed two fields from Wold Cottage on the outskirts of the village of Wold Newton on December 13, 1795.
At the time, the cottage was the home of local magistrate Edward Topham. He was a man who liked formality and in the days that followed he recorded the statements of those who witnessed the event under oath, including a shepherd and farmhand who were just 150 yards from the spot when the meteorite fell.
Topham wrote: “All these witnesses who saw it fall, agree perfectly in their account of the manner of its fall, and that they saw a dark body passing through the air, and ultimately strike the ground... I saw no reason to doubt any of their evidence after the most minute investigation of it.”
Topham went one step further. While the bulk of the meteorite was handed over to London’s Natural History Museum, Topham erected an obelisk on the exact spot where it had fallen to ensure “the extraordinary stone” which landed in Yorkshire more than 200 years ago was never forgotten.
The site is one of those featured in Elliot’s film and it’s the stories of men like Topham, which he says encapsulates our ongoing fascination with falling stars.
“Stories like that are just fantastic,” says Elliot who has changed into 18th-century dress to film a recreation of the moment the asteroid fell to Earth.
“Even the smallest meteorites contain fantastically large amounts of information and scientists can spend years just analysing the smallest of samples.
“They can tell us so much about the origins of life, but there is also something about them which appeals to our fascination with the unknown and what lies in outer-space.
“You can only imagine what the reaction was 200 years ago when the Wold Cottage meteorite landed, but even today there is something about seeing a shooting star or hearing about extraterrestrial material which gets people excited.”
Elliott has swapped and bartered countless pieces of meteorite with many of the world’s biggest museums and universities and in recent years two large sales of rocks from his own collection made in excess of £180,000 at auction. Not bad for his original investment of £40.
“I know I’m really lucky to have turned a lifelong hobby into a job,” he says.
“Even today when it’s freezing and rainy there’s nothing I’d be rather be doing.
“When you know that you could stumble upon a rock like the Hambleton Meteorite, it makes it all worth it.”
Rocks from out of this world
Meteorites can vary in size, with some as small as dust particles and others up to 30ft in diameter.
Around 500 meteorites land on the surface of the Earth every day, but of those only around five ever make it into the hands of scientists.
Meteorites that are observed as they fall through the Earth’s atmosphere and later recovered are called “falls” and others are called “finds”. To date there have been around 1,000 collected falls and around 4,000 finds.
Meteorites contain the oldest known rocks in our solar system and minerals that formed around other stars, probably billions of years before our solar system was born.
To find out more about Rob Elliot’s collection visit www.meteorites.uk.com