Madrid, 17 (Europe Press)
The Winchcombe meteorite was the first of its kind to be recovered in the UK when it struck its namesake town in Gloucestershire in 2021. Its quick collection by the public and scientists has ensured it has been preserved in an almost pristine condition, allowing researchers to investigate what material was transported from Outer Space.
A new study, published in the journal Science Advances, supports the suggestion that meteorites brought important molecules to Earth that helped pave the way for the evolution of life.
Dr Ashley King, who co-led the study and is an expert on meteorites at the Natural History Museum (NHM), says in a statement: “The Winchcombe meteorite is incredibly well preserved and contains all the ingredients that could begin to create an environment suitable for life to evolve inside.
“The composition of its waters, on the basis of hydrogen isotopes, is very similar to what we see in the Earth’s oceans, while within it there are also amino acids, which are used to build DNA.”
“We know it wasn’t contaminated, so this research adds weight to theories that carbonaceous asteroids were important in bringing these particles to Earth after it formed.”
While the Winchcombe meteorite may have fallen to Earth in Gloucestershire, its origins lie more than 300 million kilometers away. The number of cameras that captured the meteorite’s fall to Earth allowed scientists to trace its trajectory back to its original location in the asteroid belt.
For millions of years, the meteorite was part of a larger asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. It shows evidence of exposure to the sun’s solar wind, indicating that it spent some of that time on the asteroid’s surface.
Less than 300,000 years ago, that all changed when a collision in the asteroid belt ripped through the rock and catapulted the meteorite into near-Earth space. At the time of their formation, it is estimated that they weighed around 30 kilograms, or the equivalent of about six kittens.
Soon, it ended up in an orbit 116 million kilometers from the Sun, about 300 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
“We found that it didn’t pass particularly close to the Sun compared to other asteroids, and that it’s only been traveling for 300,000 years, which is really fast,” Ashley explains.
“However, because Winchcombe is a really fragile type of meteorite known as a carbonaceous chondrite, it won’t make it to Earth if it doesn’t get there quickly, and it will either fall into the sun or break apart.”
Winchcombe’s orbit was not perfectly circular, which meant that it was sometimes closer to the sun and sometimes farther away. At the edge of its orbit, it was about the same distance as Earth is from the Sun, and on February 28, 2021, the two objects finally made contact.
Caught in Earth’s gravity, the meteorite exited orbit and streaked across the sky as it fell to Earth. It traveled at about 13.5 kilometers per second as it fell, which is about 15 times faster than a rifle bullet, but still the slowest speed on record for any such meteor.
Most of its mass burned up as it passed through the atmosphere, fragmenting it into pieces and raining down on and around the town of Winchcombe. About a pound of the meteorite was eventually recovered, which is close to the estimated mass of the fragments that were supposed to survive.
“We’ve been lucky with Winchcombe in many ways,” Ashley adds. “The UK should expect two or three small meteorites each year, but these often land somewhere they can’t get to.”
“The fact that it fell on a very clear night, and in an area monitored by cameras, allowed us to quickly locate it. It was also a dry week, ensuring that it could be packed quickly without being too disturbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.”