A black lump of rock is sitting on a piece of silver tin foil.

A chunk of the meteorite that has been recovered from Winchcombe ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

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Fireball meteorite that blazed across the UK recovered from a driveway

For the first time in 30 years, a meteorite has been recovered in the UK after landing in the driveway of a house in Gloucestershire.  

The meteorite is astonishingly rare and will give scientists at the Museum a glimpse into what the solar system looked like as it was forming some 4.6 billion years ago. 

On the night of Sunday 28 February 2021, shortly before 22.00 over the western part of the UK, a fireball was spotted blazing across the night sky.

Lasting about six seconds, the bright flash of light was reported by hundreds of people as it was recorded on doorbell cameras and car dashcams, and picked up by the dedicated network of cameras across the UK trained at the sky for precisely this kind of event.

Fragments of this meteorite weighing just under 300 grams have now been recovered and taken to the Museum to be analysed and studied. This is the first time since 1991 that a piece of space rock has landed and been recovered in the UK and marks an incredibly rare and exciting moment.

What makes this even more special is that the type of meteorite is something known as a carbonaceous chondrite.

Prof Sara Russell is a researcher at the Museum who studies these exact types of meteorites.

'This is really exciting,' says Sara. 'There are about 65,000 known meteorites in the entire world, and of those only 51 of them are carbonaceous chondrites that have been seen to fall like this one.

'It is almost mind-blowingly amazing, because we are working on the asteroid sample return space missions Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx, and this material looks exactly like the material they are collecting.

'I am just speechless with excitement.'

The bright fireball streaks across the night sky. The picture is in black and white.

The fireball was seen over western England at around 22:00 local time on 28 February and lasted about six seconds ©UK Fireball Alliance 

The space missions Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx have both spent years travelling through space to intercept and sample asteroids. Hayabusa2 returned to Earth in December 2020 with a little parcel of rock weighing only 4.5 grams, while OSIRIS-REx is set to return over 60 grams in 2023.

Now a piece of the same type of rock weighing almost 300 grams has crashed down in the UK.

Having landed in the town of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, it is likely to be known as the Winchcombe meteorite.  

Landing in the driveway

The meteorite formed what is known as a fireball which, as the name suggests, is when a space rock that is falling to Earth burns bright in the sky as it passes through the atmosphere.

On Sunday evening the residents of a house in Winchcombe heard a rattling noise and initially thought that perhaps a picture had fallen off the wall. They looked out the window but, as it was dark out, couldn't see anything and so left it at that.

It would not be until the morning when they went outside and found a black, sooty splatter mark on the driveway right outside the house. 

Unsure what it was, exactly, they collected the pieces up and contacted the UK Meteor Observation Network who passed the details on to the Museum.

Dr Ashley King is a researcher at the Museum who studies meteorites.

'For somebody who didn't really have an idea what it actually was, the finder did a fantastic job in collecting it,' says Ashley. 'He bagged most of it up really quickly on Monday morning, perhaps less than 12 hours after the actual event. He then kept finding bits in his garden over the next few days.'

The speed at which it was recovered has proven invaluable.

'It looks a bit like coal,' explains Ashley. 'It is really black, but it is much softer and is really quite fragile. It is exciting for us because more this type of meteorite is incredibly rare but hold important clues about our origins.'

 

This is because it means that the rock itself likely contains soft clay minerals, and this suggests that it was once filled with frozen water ice.

The evidence of water ice is indicative of some types of meteorite known as a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite. These are made of a mixture of minerals and organic compounds, including the building blocks of life itself: amino acids.

Carbonaceous chondrites originated from an asteroid that formed when the planets themselves were only just being born, as dust and ice swirling around the early solar system began to coalesce. This makes them the most primitive and pristine materials of the solar system and can provide unique information on where water and the building blocks of life were formed and what planets are made from.

'Meteorites like this are relics from the early solar system, which means they can tell us what the planets are made of,' explains Sara. 'But we also we think that meteorites like this may have brought water to Earth, providing the planet with its oceans.'

But the nature of the rock also makes them extremely fragile, meaning that the fact it has not only survived its descent but has also been recovered an even rarer event. This was likely due to the speed the meteorite was travelling when it struck, moving at around 13 kilometres per second, it was relatively slow for these extraterrestrial rocks. 

A small, jet black piece of meteorite is gently held between the finger and thumb of a hand wearing purple latex gloves.

It is hoped that the fragile meteorite can help the scientists answer questions about the formation of planets and, ultimately, our origins ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum

'These meteorites can come in at up to 70 kilometres per second, so if this really soft rock had been travelling that fast, it would have been completely destroyed in the atmosphere,' says Ashley. 'The fact that it was going quite slowly, and then that it was collected so quickly after landing, avoiding any rainfall that could change its pristine composition, means that we've just really lucked out with everything.'

Tracking its path

As if all of that wasn't impressive enough, that the fireball was seen by so many people means that scientists can figure out even more about this piece of rock. 

'What also makes this one so special is that we witnessed the fireball,' explains Ashley. 'There were nearly 1,000 eyewitness accounts reported to the UK Meteor Observation Network and International Meteor Organization, which I think was a record for their website.

'Lots of people saw it, which was fantastic, but also lots of people caught it on their doorbell cameras or their dashcams, which is really exciting.'

This is because this footage could be combined with the data collected by the UK Fireball Alliance,(UKFAll), a collaboration between the UK’s six meteor and fireball camera networks that watch the skies specifically for these events. 

Jim Rowe, the organiser of UKFAll, says, 'Each of the six UK meteor camera networks contributed data, as did three international teams who analysed the data and predicted where fragments of the meteorite would land to within 400 metres.

'It's been a real global collaborative effort tracking down this important meteorite.'

Two people, both wearing masks are lying on the ground searching on their hand and knees through short, green grass.

Around 300g of the meteorite has been recovered so far as colleagues from the Museum, the University of Plymouth, the Open University, Imperial Collge London and the University of Glasgow went out looking, although the scientists suspect that there may have been more fragments ©University of Glasgow

All of this footage was used to not only predict where the meteorite was likely to land but also, more excitingly, figure out where it came from. While UKFAll are unable to pinpoint the exact asteroid, it has revealed that the meteorite came from the outer regions of the asteroid belt that is found between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

This level of detail makes the meteorite samples almost as good as those returned by space missions. It is now hoped that this meteorite will now help feed into the science that will be conducted on the samples that come back with Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx.

Due to the sheer amount that has been recovered, it could allow Sara, Ashley and their colleagues across the UK to conduct a dry run on the kinds of experiments they will then do with the tiny amounts of asteroid that are returned, then compare the results to get a even fuller picture.

But in addition to all the incredible science that this piece of space rock will enable, the discovery hits a very personal note for many of those involved.

'There are so many things that just went right,' says Sara. 'I was a PhD student when the last UK meteorite fell and I have been waiting ever since.

'I have always daydreamed that there would be a carbonaceous chondrite, but you don't really expect that to happen at all.

'It is absolutely a dream come true.'