‘Vandal’ from outer space

Saturday, October 17, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

GRIMSBY, ONT. — The oldest thing Tony Garchinski, his mother, Yvonne or anyone else on the planet has ever touched fell with such force it cracked the windshield on the family’s Nissan SUV, skidded across the hood and dented their garage door before landing on the ground, breaking into five fragments.

Ms. Garchinski did the only logical thing: She called the police, assuming the odd-looking bit of rock was tossed at the car by a local vandal.

The cops couldn’t do much. They collected information and filed a report, and wondered out loud why the supposed pranksters had bothered to smash in the front windshield, but not the rear.

But 30-year-old Mr. Garchinski, who came across the damage when he went out for a Saturday-morning smoke three weeks ago today, held on to the strange item.

It certainly didn’t look like an ordinary rock: Matte black on the outside, the shards’ innards light grey and pebbled, flecked with metallic bits. Surprisingly heavy, the fragments fit together like bits of a jigsaw puzzle to form an almost triangular, Ping-Pong ball sized chunk of rock, dimpled with what look like giant thumbprints that give off an oily sheen.

“It just didn’t fit.”

For two weeks, the rocks sat on a beige plastic table outside the Garchinskis’ front door. It wasn’t until she watched the news a couple of weeks later that Ms. Garchinski connected the object to the fireball that lit up the sky the evening before the windshield was smashed.

She contacted the University of Western Ontario, which had been putting out calls for other-worldly finds. Western physics professor Peter Brown said once the researchers arrived, it was immediately clear this was what they were looking for.

“That was the easy part,” he said. “It’s certainly unlike any rock you’d find on Earth.”

Researchers are hoping that now this rock has been found and the public knows what a meteorite looks like, more will turn up.

Because they found it – or, rather, because it found them, and their hapless vehicle – the meteorite belongs to the Garchinskis.

It’s on loan to Western for the next three months as researchers prod and probe its chemical and mineral makeup in efforts to trace its age and asteroid lineage.

Most meteorites that crash to Earth are about 4.5 billion years old – far more ancient than anything on the planet today.

This meteorite is already one of the most meticulously studied: The high-tech cameras at Western’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network were able to track its entire path, which allows scientists to place its orbit and therefore its history with far greater precision than any found in Canada to date. Tracing its lineage is the dollar-store equivalent of a space mission bringing back materials for analysis.

That uniqueness, not to mention its unusual route to discovery, make this meteorite, otherwise “ordinary” by astronomy’s standards, somewhat more valuable. Fragments of space rock from a massive fireball in Bella Coolee, Sask., last year went for $10 to $15 a gram, Prof. Brown says. But it’s too early to tell how much the total 45 grams of this particular meteorite would fetch.

Ms. Garchinski said they haven’t yet decided what to do with the rock once they get it back. But others in the neighbourhood, flocking to observe the media frenzy down the street, couldn’t help but wonder what they could do with the money.

Ms. Garchinski is still amazed the few bits of black rock could cause so much fuss.

“And to think it was just sitting out there for two weeks.”

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