Dr Stuart Mills with some of the meteorites from Museums Victoria. (Supplied: Benjamin Healley, Museums Victoria)
It is a region that still attracts hopeful prospectors in search of gold, but Central Victoria is also a rich hunting ground for scientists seeking answers about Earth and the universe.
Where do meteorites come from?
- Nearly all meteorites come from the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars
- Meteorites are ‘space rocks’ that are found on Earth after falling from the sky
- Most meteorites are tiny and burn up as they hurtle towards Earth. Some bigger ones can explode
- Many meteorites can look like stones or rocks, but others are like hunks of metal
- They usually look like they have a ‘scorched’ or burnt skin, a result of their passage through the heat of the Earth’s atmosphere
It’s not gold, but meteorites that are the real prize for researchers — and thanks to the prospectors and their metal detectors many extraordinary examples of these nuggets from outer space are found in the region.
This month is the 50th anniversary of the Murchison meteorite that landed in Murchison, Central Victoria, in 1969.
It has become the most studied meteorite on earth.
Scientists in the United States have also recently discovered a rare mineral in a meteorite found in Wedderburn, north of Bendigo, in 1951.
And a 17-kilogram meteorite found by a gold prospector in the Victorian goldfields town of Maryborough has recently been scientifically catalogued and put on display at the Melbourne Museum.
Senior curator of geosciences at Museums Victoria Dr Stuart Mills has described renewed interest in the region’s meteorites as a “Victorian meteorite renaissance”.
“Central Victoria is now punching above its weight for helping us understand what’s been happening in the universe,” Dr Mills said.
The Murchison meteorite is the most studied meteorite in the world. (Supplied: Rodney Start, Museums Victoria)
Making waves in the international science community
Dr Mills said most meteorites were bits of debris that didn’t become planets when the first prototype planets were forming billions of years ago.
Instead, they became part of the asteroid belt — later breaking off and falling to Earth.
Dr Mills said the Murchison meteorite was particularly important for scientists studying how life on Earth began.
“It’s mostly made of carbonaceous matter, and inside it has amino acids and micro-diamonds,” Dr Mills said.
“One theory is the amino acids found in this meteorite might have been the type of thing that brought life to this planet.”
The Murchison meteorite is also one of the few that was observed as it fell.
The 210-gram Wedderburn meteorite is also making waves in the international science community because American researchers discovered it contained tiny grains of a rare form of iron carbide mineral never before seen in nature.
Scientists recently discovered the Wedderburn meteorite contains a rare mineral never before seen on Earth. (Supplied: Rodney Start, Museums Victoria)
It has been nicknamed ‘Edscottite’ — in honour of the University of Hawaii’s Edward Scott, a professor of cosmochemistry famous in science circles for his meteorite research.
Took to it with an angle grinder
Dr Mills said the mineral could only form in temperatures above about 2,500 degrees Celsius — conditions present when the planets were forming.
Supermoon or superbuzz?
This lunar eclipse occurs more than a day after the Moon has come closest to Earth in this orbit. That just makes it a ‘supermoon’ — the third in three months — based on a loose definition first coined by an astrologist.
But it’s hard to spot the difference between a supermoon, even at its closest, and a regular full Moon, says the Melbourne Planetarium’s Tanya Hill.
“There’s a tiny difference, but it’s not something we can see or relate to in the night sky.
“The ‘supermoon’ is just a bit of a superbuzz,” she says.
Find out more in our Beginner’s Guide to the Moon.
The Maryborough meteorite was found by David Hole in May, 2015, when he was prospecting near the town with a metal detector.
Mr Hole initially believed the rock contained gold, and took to it with angle grinder and other bits of machinery.
“In 2018 he brought it into the museum for identification and pretty much straight away we knew that it was a meteorite,” Dr Mills said.
Dr Mills said meteorites were useful to scientists because it was impossible to dig deep enough to study Earth’s actual core and internal structure.
“We don’t actually have a way to image [see] with our eyes through to the inside of the Earth,” Dr Mills said.
“So we have to use things like meteorites to try and tell us about what we can’t really see.”
Mysterious rocks found by prospectors
Dr Mills said one of the reasons important meteorites had been found in Central Victoria was because there were so many prospectors looking for gold.
Both the Wedderburn and Maryborough meteorites were found by prospectors using metal detectors.
John Gladdis, a gold prospector originally from Maryborough, has found at least two meteorites while prospecting.
“As soon as you pick them up, you know they’re different,” Mr Gladdis said.
“They’re almost as heavy as gold, but you know it’s not gold because you can’t scratch it or get any colour off it.
“You can’t even cut it with a diamond saw.”
Many meteorites are found by prospectors looking for gold with metal detectors. (ABC Rural: Brett Worthington)
Mr Gladdis said Australian prospectors tended not to sell interesting things, other than gold, that they found in the bush.
“We tend to think it belongs to everyone, and we’re more likely to hand it over to a museum,” Mr Gladdis said.
Dr Mills said that when people brought in rocks, he looked to see if they were heavy or magnetic.
“Then we have to work out whether the iron is from Earth or from outer space.”
Dr Mills encourages people to bring in rocks they suspect could be meteorites.
“You can keep it on your mantelpiece, but you never really know until you get it identified by a scientist,” Dr Mills said.
“That’s the catch with these things.”