A new meteorite could help unlock the secrets of the solar system
On the night of February 28, a rocky shard fell from the sky and lit up the atmosphere over England. The impressive fireball was captured by an international network of meteor tracking cameras, and scientists were dispatched to the sleepy town of Winchcombe. A piece of the meteorite was found in an alley, while another was discovered in a field full of sheep droppings.
About 18 ounces of space rock have been found so far, all of which were quickly delivered to a few select scientific institutions, primarily the Natural History Museum in London, for preliminary analysis. Rapid transport of samples to laboratories was crucial to ensure that the Earth’s environment did not significantly alter the chemistry of these near-pristine materials from space.
The meteorite – the first to be found in the UK in 30 years – turns out to be a rather rare type known as a carbonaceous chondrite. These ancient fragments not only contain the building blocks of the planets, but also compounds that may help explain how Earth got its water or even provide clues as to how life itself began.
“It’s like the magical type of meteorite that fascinates a lot of people,” says Katherine Joy, a meteorite expert at the University of Manchester.
Strangely, at first glance, the chemistry, minerals and textures of the meteorite do not appear to belong to any type of carbonaceous chondrite. Each of the fragments studied so far appears a little different from the others.
“Could this be a new type of meteorite, a new class of meteorite, something we haven’t seen before? asks Luke Daly, meteor expert at the University of Glasgow. It’s an intriguing possibility, but more research is needed to tell one way or another.
Scientific work on what will probably become the Winchcombe meteorite is just beginning. But the rarity of the meteorite, combined with the speed with which it was recovered, had the meteorite community erupting in jubilation.
“We’ve all gone mad,” says Sara Russell, a planetary scientist at the Natural History Museum in London. “For our group of meteorites, this is the most important acquisition, I would say, of all time.”
Time capsules from above
Meteorites crash into Earth all the time, but most aren’t big enough to announce themselves with a fireball. Even when they do, many fall into the oceans. The vast majority of meteorites collected are found in deserts, particularly the cold Antarctic desert, a huge expanse where conveyor belt-like flows of ice deposit space debris in specific areas, and the white hues of the continent allow black meteorites to stand out easily.
The UK is small, so meteorites don’t hit the islands often, and it’s full of towns and vegetation, making meteorites hard to find. But sometimes space rocks accidentally fall right in front of people’s noses. On Christmas Eve 1964, a meteorite “bounced off an alley, through someone’s window and landed under their Christmas tree”, says Matthew Genge, meteorite expert at Imperial College London.
In recent years, meteorite hunters in the UK have improved their chances by installing cameras designed to spy on fireballs, which are used to determine where fragments fall on Earth. Over the past decade, six different sky-facing camera arrays, run by amateur and professional researchers, have been incorporated into the UK Fireball Alliance.
These cameras are “pointing skyward all the time”, always recording, on the lookout for any lightning or notable objects crossing the sky, says Jim Rowe, the group’s organizer. During the pandemic, he wrote computer code that ensured these individual networks could communicate with each other to track any object falling from above.
The system has captured occasional fireballs for the past five years or so, but the impact sites were impractical for collection. A few years ago, “there was a fireball that dropped a meteorite directly into the North Sea,” says Daly, missing surrounding lands of the UK, northern Europe or Norway where it could have been picked up.
Welcome to Wincombe
In late February, after years of watching and waiting, a six-second fireball was captured launching meteorite fragments in Gloucestershire, a county in south-west England. The trajectory was immediately analyzed by a team of international researchers working with the UK Fireball Alliance, the likely impact area determined and experts from across England descended on the town of Winchcombe and the surrounding area.
After a few days of searching, the scientists informed the local press and asked the public to help them find strange-looking rock fragments. People from across the country sent countless photographs of possible fragments to experts.
A family woke up to find black rock fragments and soot-like splatters on their driveway. After hearing of a fireball, they quickly realized the debris was meteorite and contacted the UK Meteor Observation Network. Just twelve hours after impact, much of the meteorite had already been bagged, ready for recovery by experts.
“What a generous thing, to recognize how important this is for science and to want to contribute to it,” says Joy.
Daly and his girlfriend Mira Ihasz joined a group combing through a nearby field riddled with sheep droppings. As a rock passes through Earth’s atmosphere, the material melts and then hardens into a black shell, and the dark hues of the sheep dung looked awkwardly like the burnt crust of meteorites.