Nice to meteor you

It’s not every day a meteorite lands on your driveway, let alone one that could help explain the mysteries of the formation of our solar system – but that’s exactly what happened to a family in Gloucestershire. Just before 10pm on Saturday 28th February, a blazing fireball in the night sky captivated thousands of eyewitnesses and was caught on countless doorbell cameras and car dash cams, before scattering across the gardens of various houses in Winchcombe.

This is the first time in 30 years that a meteorite has successfully been recovered in the UK, and scientists have managed to collect a staggering 300g worth of samples, which have since been taken to the Natural History Museum in London for analysis. What makes this meteorite even more special is its composition: it is made of carbonaceous chondrite, a substance found in only 51 of the 65,000 known meteorites worldwide, which is rich in a plethora of organic materials.

Not only could scientists predict where the meteorite would land to within 400m, but it was even possible to retrace its journey back to the outer regions of the asteroid belt, somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter using an array of specialist cameras operated by the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll). The compounds trapped within this rock are some of the most primitive materials in the entire solar system and will hopefully provide vital insight into how the building blocks of life came to be. Dr Ashley King, a scientist working on the meteorite told BBC News “…all the ingredients are there for understanding how you make a habitable planet such as the Earth”.

Astoundingly, the quality of the sample rivals that of specialist asteroid-sampling missions ran by the American and Japanese space agencies, mainly owing to the modest speed of 17 km/h at which it impacted the Earth, compared to an average impact speed of 70 km/h, and the quick collection of the fragments (within 12 hours of impact). Upon discovering the meteorite the morning after it landed, the family immediately alerted the UK Meteor Observation Network, and carefully began to scour their property for further fragments.

Planetary scientists normally only dream of samples of this quality and quantity. Professor Sara Russel, from the Natural History Museum said, “Meteorites like this are relics from the early solar system, which means they can tell us what the planets are made of, but we also think that meteorites like this may have brought water to Earth, providing the planet with its oceans.” Naturally, scientists working on filling in the blanks on the formation of our solar system are overjoyed at the prospect of the secrets these tiny, coal-like fragments of space rock will unlock.

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Rosina Poller

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July 2022
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