Imperial College London

Imperial experts search Gloucestershire meteorite for Solar System ingredients

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Photo of the rock in a protective case. The rock is dark.

Researchers are studying the meteorite that fell on a UK driveway in March for clues about the origins of life on Earth.

Since its arrival in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, teams of researchers including astrobiologists and geologists at Imperial College London have been studying the ‘Winchcombe meteorite’ to crack its secrets.

The organic molecules in the rock are older than the Earth itself...and could be the leftover ingredients from the recipe of life. Professor Mark Sephton Department of Earth Science and Engineering

At 4.5 billion years old, the rare rock that hails from the birth of our Solar System has held onto its unique chemistry, meaning we can get an idea of the ingredients present at this crucial time. The researchers continue to study the rock thanks to ongoing funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), park of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

As well as dating the rock, initial analyses showed it to be an extremely rare type of meteorite called a carbonaceous chondrite. This type of meteorite is rich in carbon, water, and organic matter.

Co-investigator Professor Mark Sephton, an astrobiologist at Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering, is looking at the organic matter present in this carbon-rich meteorite. He said: “The organic molecules in the rock are older than the Earth itself, and similar molecules would have rained down on the early Earth before life emerged. They may represent the first chemical steps towards life in the early Solar System, and could be the leftover ingredients from the recipe of life.

“A small part of the organic content is present as free molecules that can be extracted using solvents, but a larger part is present as a large organic network that we will use heat and hydrogen to break down into small fragments to reveal the secrets within.”

Photo of the meteorite

Arrival from the skies

Once it fell to Earth, a team of quick-thinking researchers pinpointed its location using images and video footage.

Finding a meteorite this large and this quickly, without significant Earthly contamination, is such a rare and huge success for understanding how the ingredients of the Solar System combined to create our planets. Dr Sarah McMullan Department of Earth Science and Engineering

Among the data used to locate the meteorite were images captured by the UK Fireball Network, which was established by Professor Phil Bland of Curtin University, Australia, and is co-led by Dr Sarah McMullan from Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering.

The search for the meteorite was coordinated by the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll) - a collaboration between the UK’s meteor camera networks and international partners set up for just this eventuality and led by volunteers and Natural History Museum staff.

Dr McMullan, who is also a member of UKFAll, said: “Around twenty meteorites land each year over the UK – most barely the size of a sugar cube – so they are really difficult to find. This is the first meteorite to have

A piece of meteorite in a plastic see-through bag
A piece of meteorite at Imperial's labs

been observed and recovered in the UK for 30 years. Finding a meteorite this large and this quickly, without significant Earthly contamination, is such a rare and huge success for understanding how the ingredients of the Solar System combined to create our planets.”

Fast STFC funding enabled scientists to quickly begin the search for signs of water and organics in the meteorite before it could be contaminated. They found it to be stony and rich in water and organic matter, and is now categorised with the Meteoritical Society as a member of the CM (‘Mighei-like’) group of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites.

Orbit origins

Dr Matthew Genge from Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering will soon begin investigating the meteorite’s fusion crust – the melted outer skin that forms on the rock as it plummets through the atmosphere.

Studying its fusion crust could shed light on the orbits of meteorites that fall far from the view of cameras. Dr Matthew Genge Department of Earth Science and Engineering

The fusion crust may have ‘recorded’ the details of its fall through the atmosphere – details which could give clues as to other meteorites’ orbits in space. Dr Genge said: “With the Winchcombe meteorite we already know the orbit, but with most meteorites we don't. Studying its fusion crust could shed light on the orbits of meteorites that fall far from the view of cameras.”

Dr Luke Daly, from the University of Glasgow and co-lead of the UK Fireball Network, said: “Being able to investigate (the) Winchcombe (meteorite) is a dream come true. Many of us have spent our entire careers studying this type of rare meteorite. For a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite to fall in the UK, and for it to be recovered so quickly and have a known orbit, is a really special event and a fantastic opportunity for the UK planetary science community.”

A piece of the Winchcombe meteorite that was recovered during an organised search by the UK planetary science community is now on public display at London’s Natural History Museum.

Institutions involved in studying the meteorite include the STFC, Natural History Museum, Imperial, the Open University, Royal Holloway University of London, University of Glasgow, Curtin University, and University of Plymouth.

This story was adapted from a press release by the STFC.

The UK Fireball Network is part of the Global Fireball Observatory, a series of all-sky cameras that image the night sky across the world for fireballs, led by Curtin University and supported by funding from the STFC and the Australian Research Council.

UKFAll is a collaboration between the UK’s six meteor and fireball camera networks: The UK Fireball Network; SCAMP (FRIPON); The UK Meteor Observation Network; NEMETODE; The Global Meteor Network; and AllSky7. Data from all networks is collated, standardised and shared, enabling trajectory and strewn field analysis by Curtin University, FRIPON (France) and the University of Western Ontario (Canada). UKFAll then coordinates search and recovery operations for freshly fallen meteorites.

Main and first images: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Second image: Imperial College London

See the press release of this article

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Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415
Email: caroline.brogan@imperial.ac.uk

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