A New Carbonaceous Chondrite Fall Collected in the United Kingdom

This image shows one of the fragments of the Winchcombe meteorite that was recovered in the UK. Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

On February 28, the cameras of the United Kingdom (UK) Meteor Observation Network, as well as many doorbell webcams, captured a bright fireball streaking over northern France and the southern UK. Based on calculations by British scientists, as well as colleagues from France and Australia, the fireball trajectory led to an area just north of the town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in the UK. Scientists realized if this fireball resulted in a meteorite being recovered, it would be the first meteorite fall in the UK in the last 30 years. On that same evening, the Wilcock family in Winchcombe, a town northeast of Cheltenham, heard a thudding sound outside their house. In the morning, they discovered in their driveway a pile of black rock fragments that looked like a broken barbeque briquette or a crushed lump of coal. The Wilcock family sent pictures of this unusual material to Ashley King, a meteorite specialist at the Natural History Museum, after seeing his appeal on local television. Upon analysis, indeed, this was a meteorite, and one of an especially interesting type. This was a carbonaceous chondrite, a pristine, approximately 4.6-billion-year-old rock that formed at the start of the solar system and carries a geological record of the solar system’s formation.

Carbonaceous chondrites are a relatively rare type of very primitive meteorite known to contain amino acids and other organic material that can provide information on the building blocks that led to the development of life here on Earth. Approximately 500 grams of this meteorite were collected from the Wilcock’s driveway and the surrounding countryside. The fact that this meteorite was recovered so quickly after its fall means that there had been little time for terrestrial water or organic material to contaminate the sample. As such, this meteorite is almost as pristine as samples that have been or will be returned by asteroid sample-return missions like Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx. The data collected of the Winchcombe meteorite’s fall to Earth by specialized meteor cameras were analyzed by the UK Fireball Alliance, which found the meteor was travelling at close to 9 miles per second when it entered the atmosphere on a path to Earth originating from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The UK Fireball Alliance tweeted on March 10, “We got pretty lucky with this one….” Moving forward, the UK and international planetary science communities will be carefully analyzing the Winchcombe meteorite grain by grain to piece together the secrets of our solar system that it holds. READ MORE