Fragments of the spectacular fireball seen on the 28th of February 2021 have been recovered from near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire – and its a rare Carbonaceous Chondrite !
Of the 65,000 meteorites known to exist, only 1206 have been seen falling, and only 51 of these are Carbonaceous Chondrites. So this is a really rare event, and furthermore the sample was retrieved so quickly after its fall and in such a good condition that it is comparable to the samples returned from space missions. Around 300 grammes were recovered less than a day after the fireball was seen. This is the first Carbonaceous Chondrite recovered in the UK ever, and the first meteorite recovery in the country since 1991.
The recovery of this meteorite is a triumph for the UK Citizen Science and the meteor detection networks. Data from six networks, UKMON, NEMETODE, UKFN, FRIPON, GMN and Allsky7, as well as data from the public, contributed to analysis performed by teams in Canada, Australia and France and coordinated by the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFall) to calculate the projected fall area.
Commenting on this collaboration, Jim Rowe of UKFall said “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!”, and Luke Daly from the University of Glasgow and co-founder of UKFall commented “It’s thanks to this international collaboration, including researchers as far away as Australia, that we were able to calculate where this meteorite landed so quickly and with such accuracy, as well as where it originated from in the asteroid belt, a rarity that can be said of only about 40 of the 65,000 meteorites on Earth. Goodwill and teamwork have produced a stellar result.”
Due to coronavirus travel restrictions, it was not possible to immediately visit the area. So an appeal was made to the public to be on the look out for fragments. Stories were run in all the major UK papers and television networks explaining what to look for and how to handle a potential find without contaminating or damaging it.
This paid off when a family in Gloucestershire reported a chunk of meteorite embedded their drive, with fragments thrown over the neighbour’s hedge. Furthermore, later in the week a team of specialists including scientists from the Univerities of Glasgow, Manchester and Plymouth, from the Open University and from Imperial College London were able to join the search and have found further fragments.
Dr Richard Greenwood, Research Fellow in Planetary Sciences at the Open University was the first scientist to identify and advise on the meteorite. He said ‘I was in shock when I saw it and immediately knew it was a rare meteorite and a totally unique event. It’s emotional being the first one to confirm to the people standing in front of you that the thud they heard on their driveway overnight is in fact the real thing.”
All the fragments have been moved to the Natural History Museum, where Professor Sara Russell, Merit Researcher in Cosmic Mineralogy, who advised on handling and care for the meteorite, said, “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.”
The significance of this recovery can’t be underestimated.
Chondrites are the most primitive and most pristine form of meteor, and can provide unique information about the conditions in which our solar system was born, where our water came from, how the building blocks of life were formed and where planets come from.
Chondrites are named because they contain chondrules, which are small spherical pieces of melted material that formed when our solar system was born and which have been trapped ever since like little time capsules. Chondrites may also contain amino acids and other organic compounds and even material from the pre-solar nebula in the form of small white inclusions called CAIs (calcium-aluminium inclusions). So they’re a treasure trove of scientific information.
As Dr Ashley King, UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Museum put it, “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!’
On a personal note, i am thrilled to have been involved in this in a minor way, and i am looking forward to not just the science that comes out of this fall, but to the next fall as well!
More to be found ?
Its possible that more fragments may yet be discovered. If you are local to the area, please keep an eye out for fragments which may appear as black stones, or as piles of tiny rock or even dust. The picture here, from a similar event, shows what you might expect to see on a hard surface. On soft ground the meteorite might be more intact!
If you find something that could be meteorite, take a photo of it and record its location before collecting the sample.
Use a gloved hand to pick the fragment up so that you don’t transfer skin or sweat to it, and then package it in aluminium foil to keep it safe. Then contact the Natural History Museum or one of the organizations mentioned below. Please also respect local lockdown COVID-19 regulations.
About the UK Fireball Alliance:
The UK Fireball Alliance aims to recover freshly fallen meteorites in the UK. Led by volunteers and by staff of the Natural History Museum, UKFAll is a collaboration between the UK’s six meteor and fireball camera networks. The networks are:
- The UK Fireball Network, run by a team from Imperial College London and the University of Glasgow, supported by funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Australian Research Council, is part of Australia’s Curtin University-led Global Fireball Observatory operated by the Space Science and Technology Centre in collaboration with NASA and 18 international partners;
- SCAMP, the UK part of the France-based FRIPON fireball network, which was funded by ANR in 2014 and now comprises 175 cameras and 25 radio receivers;
- The UK Meteor Observation Network, a UK-based network of amateur astronomers;
- NEMETODE, a UK-based network of amateur astronomers;
- The Global Meteor Network, a Canada-based professional / amateur meteor observation collaboration; and
- AllSky7, a German-based fireball network originated by the American Meteor Society.
The Winchcombe fireball was recorded by all six networks from locations as far away as the Netherlands and Wales. Trajectory and strewn field analysis was done by researchers from the Global Fireball Observatory at Curtin University in Western Australia, the FRIPON network in France and the University of Western Ontario in Canada. UKFAll then coordinates the search and recovery.
UKFAll is an affiliated society of the UK Geologists’ Association.