A meteorite which crashed onto a family’s driveway in Gloucestershire, UK, has been found to contain extra-terrestrial water that gives insights into the origin of Earth’s oceans.
Named after the village it landed in, the Winchcombe meteorite was blasted off an asteroid near Jupiter and travelled to Earth within the last million years. It was recovered in February 2021, hours after its spectacular fireball lit up the skies over the UK.
Now, an extensive study led by London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Glasgow, reveals compelling evidence that water arrived on asteroids, with meteorites delivering the ingredients needed to kickstart oceans and life on Earth.
Study author Ashley King of the Natural History Museum said, “The rapid retrieval and curation of Winchcombe make it one of the most pristine meteorites available for analysis, offering scientists a tantalising glimpse back through time to the original composition of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.”
Analysis of Winchcombe, the first ever meteorite of this type to be found in the UK, began within days of the fall. The rapid recovery was possible thanks to public reports and video footage of the fireball coordinated by the UK Fireball Alliance, a collaboration between academics and citizen scientists interested in meteor observation.
Through detailed imaging and chemical analysis, the team determined that Winchcombe contains approximately 11% extra-terrestrial water, most of which is locked-up in minerals. Crucially, the team were able to quickly measure the ratio of hydrogen isotopes – a type of atom - in the water, finding it closely resembles the composition of water on Earth.
Extracts from the Winchcombe meteorite also contain extra-terrestrial amino acids – molecules that are fundamental components for the origin of life. The results indicate that asteroids played a key role in delivering the ingredients needed to kickstart oceans and life on Earth.
Luke Daly, co-author and lecturer in Planetary Geoscience at the University of Glasgow said, “One of the biggest questions asked of the scientific community is how did we get here?
"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.”
"Analysis on the Winchcombe meteorite gives insight into how the earth came to have water – the source of so much life."
Parts of the Winchcombe are on public display at the Natural History Museum, along with the section of driveway showing the black splat of the space rock and a Waitrose cream pot into which the fragments were initially swept by the home owners.
Natasha Almeida, co-author and curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum, “We’re still reeling from our good fortune to have such an important meteorite fall in the UK and are so grateful to the local community for their donations and the UK’s cosmochemistry network for coming together to produce this extensive study.
"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.”