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Space and Physics

Why The UK Meteorite Is Truly Something Special

author

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockMar 12 2021, 14:18 UTC
One of the fragments of the Winchcombe meteorite

One of the fragments of the Winchcombe meteorite. Image Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

On February 28, 2021, a bright fireball lit the sky over the British Isles. The original space rock was flying through the air at a whopping 14 kilometers (9 miles) per second before hitting the Earth’s atmosphere.

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Thanks to specialized cameras across the UK, researchers were able to follow the trajectory of the meteor from its original orbit in space all the way to the likely location it hit – and that’s where they found the meteorite. The space rock landed at 9:54 pm local time on Sunday, February 28 in the town of Winchcombe in the west of England. It is now in the care of the Natural History Museum in London.

“[The meteorite] is made of what looks like water-bearing minerals. It looks like at some point in its past, the asteroid it came from might have had water on it,” Dr Helena Bates, curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum, London told IFLScience in an Instagram Live interview you can check below. “It’s really special. And to get it so quickly was an extraordinary effort!”

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The finding is not only exciting for being the first meteorite found in the UK in 30 years. It is also a pretty rare specimen. Of the 65,000 or so known meteorites, only 1,206 have been seen falling from the sky. Out of those, only 51 are carbonaceous chondrites – and this is one of them. And if this wasn’t special enough, this is one of the only 40 meteorites whose location of origin in the asteroid belt is known.

“Nearly all meteorites come to us from asteroids, the leftover building blocks of the solar system that can tell us how planets like the Earth formed,” Dr Ashley King, from the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, said in a statement. “The opportunity to be one of the first people to see and study a meteorite that was recovered almost immediately after falling is a dream come true!”


The Winchcombe meteorite is a great find, and it is similar in composition to the samples collected by Japanese mission Hayabusa2 and NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex. The former has brought back its precious cargo of space rocks on December 6, and mother nature decided to give us a little extra with this meteorite.

“The Japanese space mission Hayabusa2 returned around 4.5 g of fragments from asteroid Ryugu to Earth in December last year, and at the Museum we are helping to characterise this material. The Winchcombe meteorite fall is very timely as the rock is similar to Ryugu in many ways, and we can use the meteorite to rehearse for mission analyses,” Prof Sara Russell, Merit Researcher in Cosmic Mineralogy at the Museum explained.

The location of the meteorite was found thanks to the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll), a project that uses six cameras across the United Kingdom to track meteors with the hope of estimating where they might fall.

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“Three years ago a meteorite fell in Dorset. Back then we had good data but no action plan. So, we set up UKFAll, and this is the outcome! Each of the six UK meteor camera networks contributed data as did three international teams who analysed the data, so it’s been a real global collaborative effort tracking down this important meteorite,” Jim Rowe of UKFAll explained.

This article was amended to include quotes from an exclusive IFLScience Instagram Live interview with Dr Helena Bates.

Space and Physics