A golf-ball-sized rock that struck a Novato house in Northern California last Thursday night is the first confirmed piece from the Orionids Meteor Shower that flew over the California sky in the past few days, according to a NASA-affiliated astronomer.
And, in a poetic coincidence, the little piece of heaven happened to hit a pastor's house.
Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute in Mountain View held the 2.2-ounce meteorite Sunday morning while facing TV cameras in front of the home of Rev. Kent and Lisa Webber, who live on St. Francis Avenue in Novato's Pleasant Valley neighborhood.
"It's wonderful and very interesting to think this might be billions of years old," Rev. Webber said during a break from his Sunday duties at the Presbyterian Church of Novato. "Maybe God's trying to get our attention. I'm not sure what God is trying to say, and I'm not sure how to interpret it."
Lisa Webber, head nurse in the University of California-San Francisco's medical dermatology department, said she has a hard time believing the piece she picked up on her side yard turned out to be a meteorite. She was at home Oct. 17 enduring a rainout of the San Francisco Giants' playoff game in St. Louis and listening to NPR when she heard a boom outside followed by what sounded like something rolling on the roof.
"I thought 'There's something like a rat or a raccoon in my garage or something,'" she said.
She walked into the garage and outside but didn't see anything amiss. It wasn't until after work on Friday that she noticed a newspaper story about the meteor shower and its projected pattern directly over Novato.
"That's when I saw, 'Oh my gosh, I might have a little meteor chunk outside in the yard.'"
Home alone at the time, she made a visual check of the roof and the recently cleaned gutters but didn't find anything, so she started walking around the perimeter of the house. She picked up an odd-looking rock near her side gate and brought it in the house. Her neighbors, Luis Rivera and his wife Leigh Blair, also were not home, but their 23-year-old son, Glenn, was home. He recalled from a Discovery Channel show that pieces of meteor should be magnetic.
"So I go find a magnet and it sticks to it, and we both go, 'Whoa!'" she said.
At that point she contacted Jenniskens, who was on the hunt for meteor chunks along with other scientists from SETI's Carl Sagan Center of the Study of Life in the Universe. He said he wanted to come up to take a look at the rock, but the Webbers were heading out to an event. Rivera and Blair volunteered to host the scientist. At about 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Rivera pulled out a ladder and climbed onto the Webbers' roof. He found a divot identical in size to the meteorite.
Jenniskens, investigator for NASA’s Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance Project, did some more research and then confirmed the gray rock was a piece of meteor Sunday morning.
Streaks of exploding, disintegrating material have been visible all over Northern California since Oct. 17, and there were many reports of loud booms heard. Astronomers originally said it was part of the Orionid meteor shower, named after the Orion constellation and linked to debris from Halley's Comet. But Jenniskens said the meteor that exploded over the Bay Area Wednesday is from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not tied to the Orionids.
Jenniskens said scientists will examine the material and determine whether it matches elements of Earth or something else.
"I am thrilled," he said. "This means that we have with this meteorite a great track that points back to its origins in the asteroid belt, so with a bit of luck we will be able to say what sort of debris field this rock originated from. ... It will be really interesting to study this and see what this can tell us, either about the origin of the Earth or the origin of life."