A meteorite that crashed onto a U.K. driveway early last year has been found to contain extraterrestrial water.
Known as the Winchcombe meteorite after the town where it was discovered, it came hurtling to Earth as a spectacular fireball in Gloucestershire, England, on the night of Feb. 28, 2021. According to a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, the rare carbonaceous meteorite also contains organic compounds that may provide insights into the origin of life on our planet.
The study was an international effort led by researchers from the University of Glasgow and the Natural History Museum in London, where samples of the meteorite are currently on display.
“The rapid retrieval and curation of Winchcombe make it one of the most pristine meteorites available for analysis, offering scientists a tantalizing glimpse back through time to the original composition of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago,” Ashley King, one of the study’s co-authors and a Natural History Museum research fellow, said in a news release.
Collected within hours with the help of public reports and video footage of the fireball, scientists began studying the meteorite not long after its retrieval. Through detailed imaging and chemical analyses, they determined that it contains approximately 11 per cent extraterrestrial water by weight. The water, which originated outside our planet, is mostly locked-up in minerals that formed in the earliest stages of the solar system and is similar in composition to water found on Earth.
The meteorite is believed to be a fragment blasted off an asteroid near Jupiter that then headed to our planet within the past million years. It’s estimated to be around 4.6 billion years old.
The meteorite also contains amino acids, which are organic molecules that are fundamental building blocks for proteins and life. According to the study, their results indicate that carbonaceous—or carbon-rich—asteroids played an important role in delivering key ingredients needed to create oceans and life during our planet’s early history.
“One of the biggest questions asked of the scientific community is how did we get here?” Luke Daly, a lecturer in planetary geoscience at the University of Glasgow and one of the study’s authors, said in the news release. “This analysis on the Winchcombe meteorite gives insight into how the Earth came to have water – the source of so much life. Researchers will continue to work on this specimen for years to come, unlocking more secrets into the origins of our solar system.”
Other samples of the Winchcombe meteorite are on display at the Winchcombe Museum and The Wilson art gallery in nearby Cheltenham.
Researchers from the University of Western Ontario also contributed to studying the Winchcombe fireball’s trajectory and field of debris.
“We’re still reeling from our good fortune to have such an important meteorite fall in the U.K., and are so grateful to the local community for their donations and the U.K.’s cosmochemistry network for coming together to produce this extensive study,” Natasha Almeida, curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum and another of the study’s co-authors, said. “The combination of such a quick recovery, careful collection, and our ongoing curation of Winchcombe in a nitrogen atmosphere means this incredibly fresh specimen will remain one of the most pristine meteorites in collections worldwide.”