Catch a Shooting Star

Lead Research Organisation: The Open University
Department Name: Physical Sciences


To the general public planetary science can often seem like a remote and impenetrable subject, far removed from normal everyday life. Dramatic events, such as the detonation of the Chelyabinsk fireball over Russia in early 2013, can briefly catch the collective imagination. However, media coverage often emphasises the potential dangers posed by such incidents and the science involved is only briefly discussed. And yet close encounters between people and space rocks are not particularly rare events. On average each year there are seven witnessed fireball events in which space rocks are subsequently recovered for scientific study (source: Meteoritical Bulletin for period 2001 to 2008). Even the United Kingdom, a comparatively small country in terms of surface area, has 18 authenticated falls from which samples were recovered. Based on our outreach activities at the Open University we know that being able to handle real meteorite samples invokes a dramatic response in people, inspiring curiosity and interest. Just holding our 10 kg sample of the iron meteorite Gibeon, which is nearly three times denser than a terrestrial surface rock, provokes people into asking questions about how and why asteroids and planets melt and then separate into a core, mantle and crust. Being able to touch a piece of Mars or the Moon changes a person's perceptions; space no longer seems quite so remote. Handling real samples from other worlds can, and does, dramatically alter attitudes, transforming people who were previously indifferent to space science into real enthusiasts. In short, meteorites have a unique potential to open up planetary and space sciences to all sections of the public.

The central aim of this project is to inspire and educate the general public about planetary and space science by creating an exhibit that places real meteorites at the centre of an authoritative and interactive audiovisual display. At the heart of this project is our experience that by being able to hold and interact with real space materials inspires people's curiosity. As a result of being able to handle such samples they quickly formulate questions about a host of related topics, such as: How old are meteorites? Where do they come from? Do they pose a real and present danger? Where do you find them? Did they really kill the dinosaurs? How do you know we have meteorites from Mars and the Moon? To respond to such questions and to provide an exciting audiovisual experience, the exhibit will include an interactive display consisting of a touch-screen computer and large plasma screen display. This interactive system will provide a range of information, video materials, animations and face-to-face interviews aimed at highlighting topics relevant to many of the STFC Roadmap Science Challenges.

The overall philosophy of the exhibit will be to show how samples that land on Earth can be used to investigate a wide range of astronomy and planetary science-related topics, including: Earth-crossing asteroids, structure and evolution of the asteroid belt, comets, the Late Heavy Bombardment of the inner Solar System, delivery of volatiles to Earth, early Solar System evolution and the formation of stars. The exhibit will be designed at the Open University with a full working version installed at the Manchester Museum. A second version of the interactive display will be retained at the Open University, where it will be used to undertake further development work based on the feedback received from the "live" exhibit at Manchester Museum. As part of the project, an on-line interactive website will be produced, which will provide a means of making this resource available to a wide audience. The website will include a downloadable application for tablet computers.

Planned Impact

A variety of pathways will be used to promote awareness of the project.

The Open University has strong links to national broadcast media, particularly through its partnership work with the BBC. We will make full use of these contacts to publicise Catch a Shooting Star. In particular, in our discussions with the national media we will emphasise the central theme of the project that meteorite science plays a key role in understanding the origin and evolution of our Solar System. Through our contacts with the Royal Astronomical Society we will bring the project to the attention of both professional and amateur astronomers. The British and Irish Meteorite Society (BIMS) maintain a popular and well-visited website which will be used to draw attention to the project. In addition, BIMS maintains good contacts with many local astronomy groups and these will be used to disseminate details about the project.

At a more local scale, the Manchester Museum will circulate details of the exhibit to a variety of interested groups in their catchment area (schools, clubs, local media etc). We will contact a range of interested organisations including other museums, the British National Space Centre, observatories and planetariums to make them aware of the Manchester exhibit. In our contacts with the national media we will try to encourage members of the general public to visit the Manchester Museum and also to make use of the web-based resources.

During the course of the project we will undertake presentations to a wide variety of audiences. We will publicize the activity to fellow planetary and space scientists by presenting posters and/or talks at both the annual Meteoritical Society meeting and the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. The results of this project will also be of interest to those engaged in the Museum sector. We will therefore work through the Museums Association to raise awareness of the project.

In addition to the Final Report we aim to publish at least two peer-reviewed publications documenting different aspects of Catch a Shooting Star. A paper will be submitted to Meteoritics and Planetary Science examining how useful meteorites proved to be as a tool for raising science awareness. A second will examine how learning outcomes differ between museum-based and online environments.


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Grady Monica (2014) Atlas of Meteorites in Atlas of Meteorites

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Johnson D. (2014) Thermomechanical Properties of Meteorite Iron and the use of Meteorites in Antiquity in 77th Annual Meeting of the Meteoritical Society

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Johnson D. (2014) Iron from the sky in Geoscientist

Title Catch a Shooting Star 
Description We created a physical exhibition about meteorites, including pieces of the Moon that visitors could touch, for installation at the University of Manchester Museum. The exhibit is part of the Earth Science Galleries, and comprises a series of touchpads linked to videos telling the story of meteorites and their importance in understanding the origin of the Solar System. The two staff, Dr Richard Greenwood and Dr Diane Johnson, who created the exhibition, were employed as a PDRA and a Project Officer, respectively, on the linked grant APSOU 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The exhibit is available for the use of Planetary Science students at the University of Manchester as a resource complementary to the materials available in the dept of Earth Sciences collection. 
Description We have (re)discovered the fascination that extraterrestrial materials have for the public, especially school students, especially when they are able to touch and hold them.
Exploitation Route We hope to apply for additional funding to replicate the exhibit in several other regional museums, enabling the public (especially school students) to experience the fascination of extraterrestrial materials
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description To design, build and install an exhibition in a public museum, and design an associated website
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Royal Society Partnership Grant
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2015 
End 07/2016
Description Shooting Star 
Organisation University of Manchester
Department Manchester Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Design and build of an exhibit for the museum
Collaborator Contribution trained staff in preparation of material and text for public display
Impact Main output is an exhibit at the Manchester Museum, where visitors can touch pieces of meteorite
Start Year 2015
Description Conversation pieces 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The OU was one of the first universities to support the daily news blog The Conversation ( The site has the tag-line "Academic rigour, journalistic flair": academic specialists write the articles, which are edited for readability. This is the opposite from most news sites, in which journalists write the articles, relying on specialists to provide a quote. Five of the CoIs on the CG have written 61 articles in the past two years, which have been read a total of 1.5 million times; an additional 4 PDRA and 3 PhD students have written a further 13 articles, attracting 380,000 views. Every article is accompanied by the text 'X receives funding from the STFC'. One of the CoIs (Grady) has a column on the site, which is syndicated to the US and Australian editions of the news site, gaining a wider coverage for the articles. At the current rate of growth of the site, it is anticipated that there is likely to be at least one article per week from CG staff, their PDRA and students, gaining a global coverage for their research.

Updated in March 2017: the PI alone has had more than a million reads of her articles
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016
Description Public Lectures 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The PI, MMG, has given between about 30 public lectures, talks and school visits each year since forever. Following the successful Rosetta mission, she has given around 50 such presentations a year, leading to animated discussions about comets and other extraterrestrial bodies, the value of space exploration as an incentive for studying science and engineering, technological developments and spin outs from space missions and the cost of space exploration when weighed against other calls on the public purse.

At almost every lecture, MMG receives additional invitations to give talks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010,2011,2012,2013,2014,2015,2016,2017
Description Royal Society Summer Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Royal Society Summer Exhibition takes place over 7 days in central London. In 2014, we led a consortium of institutions to produce an exhibit about comets and the Rosetta mission, and also were a partner in an exhibition about GAIA. In 2015, we again led a consortium exhibition about Rosetta and comets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2016